Six times New Zealand has been to the World Cup semi-finals and hit the semi-final wall. The closest was a nine-run loss to England in 1979.
Sometimes New Zealand wasn’t even in the contest, blowing their opportunity. As history will now show, the seventh time going around, the walls of the semi-final hex fell down and New Zealand made it through to the biggest stage of all.
The game itself had more twists and turns than a barely believable Hollywood script. Arguably from the coin toss there was a twist, with rain threatening at some stage AB de Villiers won the toss and batted, conventional wisdom being that batting second if rain comes is the better option.
The intensity of the game was only helped by a magnificent Eden Park crowd, who lived every moment, willingly Trent Boult on to entice Hashim Amla to drive at a ball without footwork, ticking each run off as New Zealand accumulated towards the total and then trusting in Grant Elliott to close out the game and create history.
Both teams made uncharacteristic mistakes, Luke Ronchi dropping a catch in off Quentin de Kock, Boult running around a catch off Alma and not referring a LBW off Faf du Plessis early in his innings. The mistakes were testament to the pressure both team were under, and also the intensity and level of the quality of batting.
For New Zealand a game that had South Africa at 2-31, looked like getting away from them as South Africa accumulated. The key moment was the rain arriving, seemingly something else that Brendan McCullum can control.
The batting of David Miller after the rain break was incredible, treating Tim Southee in particular with disdain. However if that batting was incredible, McCullum was on another level. The start he gave New Zealand was crucial, and the shot selection was exactly that, selective. When McCullum plays the ball on its merit he is unstoppable, it’s when he forces the issue that he can get out.
New Zealand’s chase had many twists as would be expected, but it was when they offered the Proteas chances that the pressure showed. AB de Villiers breaking the stumps without the ball had many thinking back to Herchelle Gibbs dropping Steve Waugh. In AB’s defence, the throw was difficult, however he had time but pressure is a great leveller. For De Kock to then do a similar mistake showed how much pressure they were under.
Even conventional dismissals seemed controversial, Du Plessis catching Corey Anderson which may have hit the wire from Spidercam, which begs the reason why the camera is needed when drones can do a similar role, and also if it did, that Faf could show Steve Smith how to catch off the wire.
Both teams were evenly balanced across all areas, South Africa superb at the ground fielding, the JP Duminy and Farhaan Behardian incident the real black mark against their fielding effort. Both teams had challenges with their fifth bowling option, but the real difference was the wicketkeeping. Not so much that Ronchi is a better keeper or had a better catching performance, but he had experience.
The wicketkeeper is often considered the ‘drummer in the band’, there to keep the team on focus and to motivate them. While a player with potential, De Kock appeared to struggle to be very quiet behind the wicket, and when you look at Australia and India with experienced keepers the difference becomes quite noticeable.
It would be unkind to say this game was another choke by South Africa, it was two teams battling to the end to get to Melbourne. Sure it will be hard to take for their supporters but it was the ultimate advertisement for one-day cricket. The grace with which De Villers spoke with afterwards was a testament to the spirit these two teams played the game with. It would be good to see the two combatants in the second semi-final to play with the same spirit and focus on a good hard game of cricket.
For New Zealand the tournament has one more game. Having achieved so much, some might say they have done well. This team, however, has a single-minded focus, they work as a team, there is always one or more who contribute, and they will be a team to fear in the final.
If the final in Melbourne is even close to the skill and intensity level shown in the first semi-final, it will be a fitting finish to a great tournament. Expect over the coming days to see many New Zealand fans trying to find a way to get to the bid dance, and if you do have a ticket there is bound to be a Kiwi who would take it off your hands.