When an epic knock out match of the world’s biggest cricketing prize concludes, it throws up compelling photo-ops. None more compelling or heartbreaking than a fierce fast bowler hunched over and weeping like a kid. 16 years ago, Allan Donald sank to his knees in agony after he found himself in the middle of nowhere responding to Lance Klusener’s call in the legendary semifinal against Australia. On Tuesday, Dale Steyn was forced to relive that misery by the cricketing gods.
No sooner did Grant Elliot launch the penultimate ball of the match over the ropes, the word ‘chokers’ started doing rounds. First of all, those who called this a choke have not understood the meaning of it. When the team appears home and dry, then commits harakiri and squanders ascendency towards the business end of the match is, in cricketing terms, choking. Did South Africa do that? They just ran into a team that was better on the night and, perhaps, enjoyed a bit of luck as well.
But that can hardly be a consolation for the team that had all the boxes ticked as far as the preparation and potential was concerned. The desolation at the end of the match was as hard hitting as the euphoria. South Africa did not even try to conceal the emotion. All those eleven players, in the middle of 40,000 people, would have felt lonelier than they have ever been. “Bheed ke beech akela”, as the Kishore Kumar song from Prem Pujari goes, summed up the South African mindset. Even Elliott later said that in his moment of glory he felt compassion for the opposition.
From New Zealand’s perspective, the timing of rain was as good as Elliot’s winning shot that illuminated the whole of New Zealand. Rain has been South Africa’s old adversary having contributed to their ousters in 1992 and 2003 World Cups. In 2015 too, the heavens opened to haunt them. 299 in 43 overs, though an uphill task, is relatively comfortable than 350 plus in 50. South Africa not only lost the momentum but also missed out on an opportunity to cash in, especially with de Villiers batting on 65 off 45 and famous for his destructive abilities in the death overs. Not to forget the short boundaries, the situation was tailor-made for the well-set man.
Nonetheless, it is one thing to see an opening with a slice of luck and another to pounce on it like a lion after its prey. The moment New Zealand saw the possible momentum shift, Brendon McCullum strode out to the middle and took the attack apart. From then on, it was a slugfest. Two top class teams, toe to toe for three hours, until Elliot sealed it for the hosts.
There were chances South Africa could have or rather should have held on to. Elliot’s catch in the deep and de Villiers’ missed run out would rankle the most. But both teams committed errors in the field. It is just that South Africa’s would be remembered for a longer time. The match will, no doubt, be looked at as a missed opportunity. Never will Steyn and de Villiers be so young again.
However, it has become a ritual to associate the word ‘choke’ with any South African loss. More so in ICC tournaments. The burden of winning an ICC tournament palpably hangs around their neck. And not without reason. They have earned the reputation for panicking under pressure on the big stage. But last night at Eden Park was different.
After New Zealand had South Africa on the mat early in the match, we saw a rearguard action from Faf du Plessis. He soaked in the pressure, dug in and laid a platform for the de Villiers onslaught. Responsibility can weigh down the strongest but De Villiers did not seem in the mood to be weighed down. He carried on from where du Plessis had left of and threatened to bat New Zealand out of the game, until the untimely rain interrupted play. In the second innings, New Zealand looked like chasing the score in a canter with McCullum going berserk. But Imran Tahir and Morne Morkel, again under pressure, brought the guests back in the game. In the middle overs, when Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill looked to be stitching a match-winning stand, Amla’s run out brought the match on to level terms.
Dale Steyn, despite the injury, fought like a warrior until his last breath. Eleven men gave everything they had and presented a memorable spectacle. The match was designed by the gods of the game and the agony had to be gone through. But the character they disclosed in front of an unforgiving crowd of 40,000 proved the resilience of a mentally tough team that knew how to handle pressure. It was not a choke. The shoe could have easily been on the other foot.