The fireworks had lit up the Sher-e Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur, Bangladesh. The New Zealand players led by Jacob Oram and Nathan McCullum were running towards the team dugout screaming like men possessed. Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir stood at the wicket, shell-shocked. South Africa had just lost the World Cup quarterfinal to New Zealand, failing to chase down 221 on a wicket that played slow but had no devil in it, that too after they were 108 for 2 around the halfway mark.
The collapse was triggered by the fall of Jacques Kallis, and Graeme Smith took the responsibility for the defeat and quit one-day captaincy. That was the last World Cup; neither Kallis nor Smith are with the South Africa squad any more but the team still carries the C tag. Last week in Sydney was the first time South Africa had ever won a World Cup elimination match and skipper AB de Villiers, after a thoroughly one-sided match, managed to make fun of themselves saying they don’t really mind carrying the chokers’ tag along as long as they were winning.
But New Zealand at home would be a different proposition than Sri Lanka in the quarters. Like India, New Zealand have not lost a match in the tournament, and except for their last group match against Bangladesh, have bundled out every opposition, including the mighty Australia.
Till three matches ago, Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson were the only Kiwi batsmen among runs. Going into a match where New Zealand themselves have to exorcise a few ghosts, Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill — with big centuries to his name — have made the batting lineup look increasingly dangerous and deep. This considering Daniel Vettori, the match winner with the bat in the tight game against Bangladesh, bats at No 8.
New Zealand like South Africa have never played a World Cup final. They have faltered in the semi-finals on six occasions, having entered the tournament on most occasions as dark horses. This time though they are tournament favourites and legends like Richard Hadlee believe these players have it in them to go all the way.
There has been a slight setback though. New Zealand have lost fast bowler Adam Milne to a foot injury aggravated during the quarterfinal against West Indies. They do have the likes of Mitchell McClenaghan, who played against Bangladesh, and the experienced Kyle Mills, but they can’t really match Milne’s pace. Coming in after a bout of swing bowling by their opening duo, his pace had proved a handful in previous matches.
New Zealand have drafted in Matt Henry, who was playing in the domestic league and has impressed with 21 wickets in eight ODIs. And the way coach Mike Hesson and skipper McCullum tackled questions on Matt, there is a possibility the 23-year-old could be tossed the ball to follow in after Tim Southee and Trent Boult.
The Eden Park wicket on which India played Zimbabwe was a belter and if something similar is dished out, De Villiers and McCullum could throw up a spectacle for the 40,000 likely to turn up.
Here is a matchup between sides desperate to enter their maiden World Cup final. So, irrespective of the outcome, history will be made on Tuesday, provided rain doesn’t play spoilsport. It drizzled throughout Monday evening and scattered showers are predicted for Tuesday.