I spent many hours last Tuesday in Auckland watching the Cricket World Cup semifinal between South Africa and New Zealand. It was insanely intense. I will probably spend most of Saturday night up watching the final. Herewith words and pictures, including a bit of overview for us New-Worlders to whom cricket is (mostly) foreign.
How I got there · Back in January, an Aussie friend told us that the CWC would be on while we were visiting New Zealand. I checked, and impulse-bought tickets for a semifinal. I had no idea how big a deal this would be.
How big a deal is it? · Well, Cricket World Cup matches feature prominently on the List of most watched television broadcasts. Countries where cricket is as central as the NFL is to America: Australia, Bengladesh, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Add up those populations.
The match was at Eden Park, all new and sparkly and renovated. Somehow, my random Web ticket shopping got us seats six from the front, just off the axis of the wicket; which is to say, perfect.
The narrative · The tournament had 14 teams, of which exactly four were credible championship threats: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and India. In other years any of England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the West Indies or Bangladesh might have been, but not in 2015.
Predictably, the top four roared into the semifinals. The bookies had Australia favored over India (not a hard call), and (surprisingly, I thought) South Africa over NZ, probably because SA’s captain de Villiers had been racking up big numbers, brushing off bowlers like cobwebs.
Backgrounder · The World Cup was in One Day International (ODI) format. Each side bowls 50 “overs” (of six balls each, thus 300 in total) to the other, unless ten batsmen are put out first. 250 runs is an acceptable score, 300 is excellent and usually wins. They toss a coin, the winner usually decides to bat first, then the other side has to “chase” the run total.
A game can last eight hours, or be over in under four if the bowlers are getting outs. This one had a rain delay and went from 2PM till nearly midnight.
The core of cricket is sustained attack. A batsman faces dozens or hundreds of balls, from multiple bowlers, each one an attempt to get him out, while he tries to send them where the bowling side’s fielders aren’t. As in baseball, the fast balls are over 90mph; but the slow twisters can be more dangerous. Landmark scores for a batsman are 50 (good, but happens most games) and 100 (not that uncommon).
The semifinal · The early game was very even, NZ taking a few wickets and posting a few maidens while the South Africans kept the scoreboard ticking. The only real highlight was a circus catch by Guptill.
I was much-taken with Boult’s bowling form.
The game really didn’t get its chokehold on the audience till the much-feared de Villiers came on.
Sure enough, he and du Plessis (what is it with the French-named South Africans?) looked stronger and stronger, loading on the runs and not seeming much bothered by any of the Kiwi bowlers. I think they were on course for a win when the rain started…
Two hours later, New Zealand came out looking sharp and refreshed, finally got du Plessis, and pretty soon were up to bat chasing 298. The tension at the start was white-hot: #1 batsman McCullum roaming the pitch, agonizingly slow, tamping down invisible imperfections; the South African side practically panting with eagerness to be at him. On the first or second ball, he stepped awkwardly out of his shoe; surely a bad portent. Then he went crazy and lashed out 59 runs on 38 balls, dropping one after another into the stands. He didn’t last long, but by the time he was gone, the required run rate was down into totally reasonable territory.
Then the Kiwi batsmen set out to drive the crowd insane by playing cautious, conservative, cricket for over after over after bleeding over; letting old-school Test-match style short shots die at their feet. Also, getting the rock-steady Guptill run out in a blaze of amateurishness didn’t help. They let the run rate creep back up, but never too far.
As midnight neared, they needed 46 runs from 30 balls. Then 36 from 24. Then 29 from 18. Then 23 from 12. Then, finally, 12 from the last 6. At bat, the transplanted South African Elliott was looking untroubled. But opposite stood the aging, flaky, spin-bowler Vettori, whose batting stance looks something like a wading bird hunting fish. But somehow he wriggled a nasty low stroke out for 4. At this point, the roar of the Kiwi crowd was almost equaled by the pitter-patter of their dripping sweat. I’ve never been in a more electric venue. A couple of singles later, 5 behind and 2 balls remaining, Elliott arced what baseball fans would call a “walk-off” six into the south stands, and I was standing in a bath of raucous joy. I was thinking of Joe Carter in 1993; but this was way bigger.
You can watch the highlights here.
This match has been covered to death, but I thought most of the write-ups missed a key point: The South African field placement was astonishingly accurate. Time after time a Kiwi smacked a bouncer really hard toward a boundary; and there was a South African fielder waiting.
In any really memorable, really close game, each side will have made some dorky mistakes: In this case the Blackcaps’ high-school running, and the South Africans’ failure to catch soft flies. But it all balanced out.
Afterstory · I thought the Aussies were a safe bet against India — they just have way better bowling — and so it happened.
So the final is Australia/NZ, appropriate since they’re the co-hosts. Given meaningful money to bet straight up, I’d take the Aussies, even though NZ (barely) won their first-round match, a rousing kill-all-the-batsmen bowlers’ party. But my wife and children are New Zealanders and so I’ll be backing the boys in black.
How many chances do you get to see a semifinal in a World Cup of anything? I’m a lucky guy.