There is an alternate universe where Ben Stokes bats for the country of his birth, New Zealand. Oh, what fun he and Brendon McCullum have. Captains in that universe pull all the hair from their head, all the skin off their face, and all the nails from their body with them together. There would be sixes and flexed biceps all over the place.
McCullum is like a coked up energizer bunny changing how we think about cricket shots. Stokes is meat. Lots of meat. Everything about his batting says impending danger. Nothing is invented. He doesn’t bounce off walls. He tries to bring them down. Against spinners, he looks like he is holding himself from trying to paint the deep-midwicket crowd with sixes.
It took McCullum five years to make a Test hundred against a major Test playing nation in an important Test. Two Tests into his career Stokes made a hundred at the hurt-o-dome of the WACA against the bull demon Ryan Harris and the dragon Mitchell Johnson when the rest of his team seemed to be going home, beaten, or retired. Now he had McCullum’s Kiwis. All confidence and raw hope. To bring Stokes to the crease, McCullum had his bowlers in a five over period, bowl Joe Root 10 bouncers in 17 balls. They had a deep-forward sqaure, a long leg, and a short-square leg. To the tenth ball Root picked out the long leg. Before that, Root had hooked one boundary.
It’s dank at Lord’s when the 81st over starts. New Zealand take the new ball. England had fought back. Stokes is set. Trent Boult is rested from the new ball. Southee bowls to Stokes. Three times Stokes drives nicely, but finds the field. None are slogged. None are lofted. This is a respectable No. 6 batsmen facing the new ball. He is well set on 30. He remains on that score throughout the over.
The 83rd over. Stokes opens the face and runs one behind point for a boundary. Then he drives one past mid-off. Then he guides another past point. Three boundaries. All played safely and tamely. There are no fireworks.
A few overs later Boult is in the attack. New Zealand’s last chance of taking back control of the game is in his hands. 22 quality overs from Boult. He has probed. Swung. Cut. Maidened. It has been a masterclass in bowling well and finding virtually no reward. Boult bowls an accurate yorker right in the blockhole, straight and full, the whole enchilada. Stokes clunks it into the turf. From another bat, another man, it limps back up to the bowler. Here, it flies past Boult, past McCullum, all the way up to the bacon and egg jacket section. Stokes bowls a heavy ball, Stokes hits a heavy ball.
Southee fronts up to Stokes again for the 89th over. Two men go out on the boundary, Southee bowls a bouncer too high, and it’s called a wide. Southee recalibrates and bowls short again. The crowd and commentators make that noise when someone plays a big shot and there is someone on the rope, it’s halfway between a six scream and a wicket wail. Then it’s clear, top edge or not, Stokes’ ball is clearing the rope. Next ball, the same noise happens again. This time instead of a cheer from the crowd, it’s a silence, followed by a laugh as Doug Bracewell fumbles the ball over the rope that was never quite as close as he thought.
Having got away with two, there are men who would put the pistol away and ride out of town. Stokes is not that kind of cowboy. He has been twitching to let loose all day. Even early on his footwork showed a man who wanted to hit Mark Craig out of England. He has this twitchy front foot that wants to get out of the line and give his arms a chance to clear something, his front leg, the rope, a stand.
Southee continues short, Stokes continues hooking. He lifts it high again, but this time it flies off the top edge nowhere near a fielder. It is only a four. In three balls, he hasn’t timed one. Southee is mid-pitch reminding him of that. Stokes doesn’t seem to hear him. No one is as voiceless as the man who has been hit for 20 runs in an over, edges or no edges.
At the start of the 91st over, black cab drivers on Wellington Road know that is coming. Tim Southee will bounce. Ben Stokes will swing. Both these things happen. But Southee is tired. His short ball looks short, but goes nowhere and had a shot not been played at it, it would have barely bounced over the stumps. Stokes does play a shot. Four runs and a third fielder sent out to the leg side boundary follow.
Southee tries two full balls. They don’t last. And he goes short again. Yet again, there is nothing on it. It has no real pace, no steeple. It seems to be sitting there waiting to be hit when Stokes pulls it. Just for a minute it looks like he might clear the Mound Stand and land it in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue outside the ground.
Short bowling is finished. Southee goes full again. There was a time during the last World Cup when the thought of a Southee full ball was enough to take the wicket of an Englishman. Stokes drives this down the ground into the 90s.
Matt Henry replaces Southee. Stokes is on 99.
Earlier in the day, as Cook got near his hundred, McCullum had three slips, a gully, three catching covers, a catching mid-on and a regulation point. It was the height of funkiness. As with the best McCullum fields, it felt like there were too many men out on the ground. It even made Cook look nervous for a moment as the odd 8-1 field stared back at him.
For Stokes on 99, McCullum can only summon up two slips, a gully, and a regulation field. Stokes has slapped the funk out of McCullum. Bashed the attacking right out of New Zealand. It took him 85 balls.
Jesse Ryder is smiling just before he strolls up to the wicket.
There are many things that tell you this is not a Test match you are at. The small crowd is one. The smaller ground is another. But nothing says it more than Ryder’s ten ambling paces. A dawdle up. Every leisurely step is a soft reminder that we’re not at a Test match. This is county cricket, where a slow-medium seam bowler can bowl attacking, prolonged spells with a geriatric club cricketer’s run-up.
Just over two years ago, Ryder was in an induced coma in Christchurch. There were serious concerns over his health. Serious concerns over his career. Serious concerns over his future.
Ryder hadn’t played for New Zealand for a year. He had decided to take a break from international cricket. His body often wasn’t right, neither was his mind. Even as he found form, and smashed everyone everywhere, he decided to stay out of the limelight and work on his own problems.
Instead he was knocked out and almost killed.
Yet, by Boxing Day of the same year, Ryder was back playing for New Zealand.
A week later he made 100 off 46 balls as Corey Anderson broke the world record for the fastest ever ODI ton at the other end. It was a modern cricket fairy tale. The reformed bad-boy franchise batting prodigy had overcome a near-death experience and his own never-ending demons and was back. And still brutal with the bat. Martin Crowe said, “He has gone through hell and he has returned a richer man.”
On February 4, 2014, Ryder said, “I am just loving life at the moment.” It was less than a year after his coma, and he was in the squad to play India in a Test. His first in over three years.
On February 10, 2014, he was dropped after being caught in a bar on the eve of his comeback Test against India.
Ryder has not played international cricket since. And he probably will not ever again.
International cricket is where we all want to end up. It might not be why we picked up the bat or ball in the first place. But once we did, that is what we thought about. A daydream. A nightly dream. Playing for our country. Playing the best cricket there is. Winning a match for our nation.
But the dream is one-dimensional. It involves timing that near-perfect yorker back over the head of the world’s best bowler to win the World Cup. It doesn’t include having a reporter trying to talk to your ex-girlfriend, or people speculating on how much money you earn, or what your intentions are, on a day-to-day basis.
It’s all these things you don’t dream about that that really are tough. The press is constantly asking questions. Or worse, making assumptions. Your new public personal life. New, previously unknown drains on your time. The need to be a role model and a professional. The different way you are seen by people you know. And the fact you now belong to a group of fans who all think they know you.
You can’t truly prepare for these things. Most cricket boards don’t even truly try to prepare you for them anyway. There is media training, the act of saying a whole lot of nothing. You will be told about your new responsibilities. But you are still you, just more famous, more of a target, more of everything.
A simple beer once you become a known international player is a whole different world.
Ryder’s problems are often beyond a simple beer. His story, history, is long and damaged. Many people who don’t know him at all, and some who know him quite well, have talked about it on an almost endless loop from the first time he arrived on the scene. Ryder’s name brings on so much chin-scratching and finger-wagging.
But Ryder is well aware of how others perceive him – how could he not if he has ever picked up a New Zealand newspaper – and of his own problems. He has seen psychologists, flown mentors around with him, and taken breaks from international cricket to set himself right.
So here he is at 30. He’s a year out of international cricket, and in his last chance to make a comeback, it was he who shunned them. Perhaps when he was asked to play for New Zealand A, he wasn’t ready. Perhaps it was more than that. From the time his name was mentioned again, the Ryder media sideshow started again. The history was repeated, the concerns were aired, and maybe Ryder didn’t want all that again. He pulled out of the A tour. He gave himself no chance to make the World Cup squad.
Not just any World Cup squad, but for New Zealanders the home World Cup squad. A little boy’s dream. Probably, at one stage, Ryder’s dream. But he walked away from it.
That side of his life, the drama, being owned by other people, being one mistake away from a headline, a dropping, more bad history, it’s just no longer worth it to him. There is no doubt that Jesse Ryder is just not cut out for all this attention. Being good at batting isn’t the same as being good at being a famous athlete. They are different skills. There are times when it looks like there is nothing Ryder can’t do right on the field. Off the field it’s as if there is nothing Ryder can’t do wrong.
Does he have to put himself through it? Does he have to keep pushing himself to be the best player he can be, play at the highest level, put himself through things he hates just to fulfil his natural talent? Many will say yes. He is not making the most of what he has.
The suburbs of the world are filled with people who are perfectly happy, who have already retired from their dream jobs, and just enjoy their very mundane life. Working for a big-city law firm is a high-flying job, but you can make a good living from a smaller suburban law practice and not have the same kinds of pressures. Some of the people are in the suburbs just because they are not good enough, but there are others, heaps of them, who are good enough but just found that the dream job wasn’t really their dream anymore.
Make no mistake, county cricket is like the suburban law firm of professional cricket. It’s a day job, there are no business-class flights, being pampered by CEOs, or thrill-a-minute takeover deals. You still need your skills but you can coast much more. A mistake is still a mistake, but it’s probably not a million- or billion-dollar mistake. It’s a job, a good one.
For Ryder, there is probably no better place now than county cricket.
There is something calming about county cricket, first-class cricket. The crowds often look near-comatose. People are knitting, reading, chatting and sleeping as you play. The cricket has international players and club players, the grounds are small and cosy. There is a feeling you’re almost in a dream sequence backyard cricket match. It is a very pure form of cricket.
Sometimes only one fan will notice a partnership milestone. And that one fan will clap so long and hard on his own, it’s like the landmark happened just for him.
It’s nice. And it matters, but no one is going to get their house stoned. No one’s mistake will end up as a worldwide meme. Politicians don’t interfere. The press don’t cover the players’ private lives. The fans don’t crowd the players. It is just a cricket match, with a few people who really enjoy it.
If you love the game but hate the fame, this is the place to be.
Ryder could have played for his country; he didn’t want to. Ryder could have played in the IPL; he didn’t want to. Ryder chose county cricket. Maybe he is giving up on a dream, but it’s probably someone else’s dream now, not his.
And he is happy; just one day of watching him at the Essex County Ground and you can see how happy he is. He looks slim as well, as slim as any time he has appeared on the cricket field.
He’s bowling as well. Ryder seems to like bowling. In international cricket, and even in New Zealand domestic cricket, he doesn’t get to do much of it. For Essex he is a proper allrounder. So far he has not given Essex the sort of runs they would expect, but he’s given them wickets they never asked for.
There is no way not to be lulled by his bowling action. It’s tranquil and soothing, and even at release there is no huge effort or scream, just a delivery with the seam in the right direction for a ball that can nip in either direction, seemingly at the will of its master. The lack of pace is so tempting that the batsman’s hands cannot do anything other than be lulled into the new line. In most countries on earth, it’s change bowling. In England, it’s last-chance and new-hope bowling.
A player who can move the ball like Ryder, and hit the ball like Ryder, who is free for six months of the year, is a ten-year county cricket player. This could be Ryder until he’s 40. And by the look on his face, he’d be very happy with that.
After several lbw shouts, Ryder and the umpires share laughs. On Sunday, day one of the season for Essex, he looked like a kid who was still surprised he could take that many wickets, as he claimed the fifth five-wicket haul of his career. Last year Ryder took 44 wickets at 18 for Essex from his 12 games. In his previous 85 first-class games he had 60 wickets.
On day two, when Darren Stevens and Sam Northeast were taking the game away from Essex, Ryder stepped up. The first ball nipped back off the seam. The second nipped away, which led to Stevens getting a leading edge that might have been caught had Monty Panesar not been the poor unfortunate soul beneath it. The next nipped in. The next nipped in, and was then smashed into the BBC commentary booth by Stevens. The final ball nipped away, took the edge, and broke the partnership.
Ryder stood in the middle of the wicket, howling, as Stevens trudged off. Straight afterwards Ryder was joking and laughing with his captain, James Foster, seemingly reliving his golden legcutter for the entire next over.
Later, in the press box, someone said, “Did Jesse send off Stevo?” That was answered with, “I wasn’t really paying that much attention.” That was the beginning and end of the discussion. There are no editorials. The incident wasn’t shown endlessly on TV. Social media commentators aren’t discussing the finer points of Ryder’s behaviour. It was just a county cricket wicket.
On day three he makes a few county cricket runs. The last one is a single. It happens to be the winning run of a match in which Essex had flirted with losing.
No fireworks go off at the Essex County Ground. Ravi Shastri doesn’t go out to give anyone a giant cheque. There will be no million-dollar contracts. It is just a few happy players, a few hundred happy fans, and a ground announcer almost prosaically delivering the result.
It’s not every kid’s dream, winning an early season game at the Essex Cricket Ground, but it’s Jesse Ryder’s real-life fairy tale right now. A different kind of modern cricket fairy tale.
Brendon McCullum is in mid-air. He is above the ground, above the ball. Floating. Flying.
The ball is heading for the boundary. McCullum sticks his hand down just before his body hits the ground. He stops the ball, but his hand, his shoulder, and most of his spine are on the padded triangle.
The ball dribbles off slowly. McCullum crashes into the LED advertising boards behind the rope. He gets up wringing his hand.
The match is against Bangladesh. It is the last of New Zealand’s group games. They cannot be anywhere other than first in their group. The game means nothing. It should mean nothing.
McCullum doesn’t play like that. He doesn’t think like that. He doesn’t lead like that. He flies into danger. Sometimes he crashes.
Mitchell Starc to Brendon McCullum is how you start a World Cup final. The first two balls to Martin Guptill were little more than a cocktail sausage. McCullum and Starc was the whole spit roast.
That first ball seemed too quick out of Starc’s hand, but somehow McCullum’s bat speed was even quicker. The whole thing was such a blur that there was even a micro moment where the crowd was waiting to see if it was six or out. Instead it had flown past the base of off stump.
Brad Haddin did a little “I can’t believe it” skip. Starc reach for his head in despair. McCullum just stared back at him.
The World Cup final had started.
Six World Cup semi-finals. New Zealand were virtually in a permanent state of semi. It was one of the more remarkable, almost invisible, records in cricket. New Zealand are nearly almost never not good at ODI cricket. New Zealand are never great at ODI cricket.
In 1975 they ran into West Indies. Glenn Turner might have been batting in that tournament like no one could get him out, but he did get out and West Indies won with 119 balls to spare. In ’79 they were up against England, and had 221 to chase in 60 overs. They ended up nine runs short with one wicket in hand. Glenn Turner went out with 60 to get. Richard Hadlee with 42 to go. Geoff Boycott took 1 for 24 from his nine overs.
Saeed Anwar could not be dismissed in the 1999 semi-final, and New Zealand didn’t set him enough to really test his skills anyway. In 2007, Mahela Jayawardene made 115 and New Zealand’s top six combined for less than that. Four years later New Zealand played Sri Lanka again. They made 217 and Sri Lanka were 160 for 1 before four quick wickets scared them, but not enough to prevent them cruising into the final.
If you meet Martin Crowe, there is a chance that, not long into meeting him, he will mention not being on the field for the whole ’92 semi-final. This was the tournament of Crowe. He let Mark Greatbatch attack in the batting. He used Dipak Patel with the new ball. And he smashed Australia for a hundred.
Crowe did all this while looking good and sounding like a cricket genius. In the semi-final, he continued to smash. He scored a better-than-run-a-ball 91 that was only ended by a run-out. At this stage, the ’92 World Cup was Martin Crowe’s tournament.
New Zealand made a huge total of 262, the highest score of any game not featuring Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe. But Crowe had hurt his hamstring, so he sat out the bowling innings, with such a big total already in the bag. Even so, Pakistan still needed 123 off the last 15 overs. New Zealand should have been in the final, but instead, Inzamam-ul-Haq came into our lives and Pakistan won the World Cup. Crowe has never forgiven himself. Crowe left the field, and the tournament.
Of all of New Zealand’s almosts, this was the most almost.
Lose toss, be asked to bat. Face sixth ball of World Cup, smash it over cover to the rope. Score 65 off 49. Win match. That is Brendon McCullum starting the World Cup.
New Zealand bowled out Scotland for 142. The game is over. But New Zealand don’t just want to win the game. They want to win the net run rate. They want to dance gloriously over the line in the shortest amount of time possible. First ball McCullum faces, he slashes wildly and mishits it over cover for 1. Then a drive to the fielder. Then a perfect cover drive. Then a dropped flick. Then a turn for one. Then a crazy charge and swipe to the rope. New Zealand’s innings is much the same as that. Instead of dancing across the line, they stumble out of the pub after having a cracking night.
Tim Southee produced one of the greatest bowling performances in World Cups against England. Old swing bowlers were watching in tears. Some of his deliveries seemed designed to not only dismiss English batsmen but humiliate them for years to come. Everyone should have been talking about him for years to come. Fifteen minutes after his seventh wicket, his name was already fading away. Had McCullum been holding a chainsaw he couldn’t have done any more damage to the English bowlers. He made 77 from 22 balls. There were four dot balls and two singles in that. The rest was too brutal to relive.
In Auckland, Australia were 51 for 1 after six overs. It is hard to attack with that going on. So McCullum didn’t attack. He changed the attack. Daniel Vettori came on. In his first 23 balls, Australia only took 13 runs. His 24th ball dismissed Shane Watson. Australia were 80 for 2. They would not double that score from there. Mitchell Johnson tried to break McCullum’s, um, arm but he still made a third of the chase in 24 balls. Somehow, even with the back of innings already broken, Mitchell Starc almost stole it with 6 for 28. McCullum took Starc for 16 off eight balls.
Vettori had seven catchers against Afghanistan for a hat-trick ball. Later that game, McCullum almost took out Guptill with a down-the-track cross-bat straight smash.
Win toss against West Indies. Watch Guptill bat. Move to seventh World Cup semi-final in country’s history.
New Zealand came into Test cricket in 1930. Their first-class cricket was probably not much stronger than that in Argentina at the time. A first Test was against England. A day later England played another Test against West Indies.
Australia played their first Test against New Zealand in 1946. They did not consider it a Test at the time. New Zealand made 42 and 54. Australia did not play New Zealand again for 10,136 days. In 1955, New Zealand went into the third innings 46 runs behind England. England won the match by an innings and 20 runs.
In this period, New Zealand had many players but only one champion. Bert Sutcliffe.
For 12 Tests, he proved to everyone that New Zealand belonged in Test cricket and should be taken seriously. It was Sutcliffe’s 13th Test that changed him.
Neil Adcock was the bowler. He was patient zero for South African quick bowling. Adcock had this flock of hair that would stand on end as he hurled the ball in. It was cute. It was the only thing cute about him; the rest of him was terrifying. He bruised everyone he played against. Australia’s Colin McDonald once said, “Tell this bastard I’ve got a family to go home to.” This day in Johannesburg, Adcock was bowling length balls, at pace, that according to Sutcliffe were going “almost vertical”. Both New Zealand’s openers were hit before they were out.
People at the ground talked about the sound the ball made on Sutcliffe’s head for years afterwards. Sutcliffe slumped to the ground unconscious. He got up, and even walked off the ground. As Sutcliffe got to hospital, Lawrie Miller was hit right on the heart, and started spitting blood. Two other players were hit as well. At the hospital, Sutcliffe lost consciousness again.
The image of Sutcliffe going back out to bat at Ellis Park looks more like a war photo than a cricket one. His head is covered in a bandage. There is a huge lump on the back of his neck. According to Richard Boock’s The Last Everyday Hero, on Sutcliffe, “[captain Geoff] Rabone and a couple of first-aid men raced into the middle to readjust the Kiwi’s bandages, which had been weeping blood during the exchanges. They eventually decided to tape a white towel around his head.”
Sutcliffe smashed the ball while he was out there. He smashed Adcock, and the great Hugh Tayfield. He went after everyone. Sutcliffe went past the follow-on with a six. At nine down, Sutcliffe was still unbeaten; he started to walk off the ground.
Bob Blair was supposed to bat at No. 11. Blair’s fiancée had tragically died in the Tangiwai train crash the day before. Blair was in mourning. Sutcliffe, and most at the ground, thought that Blair wouldn’t bat. He did. He played one scoring shot, for six. Sutcliffe ended up with 80 out of 187. The two men showed amazing bravery.
At that time, these two brave men batting in a losing cause was New Zealand’s greatest day. New Zealand lost the game by 132 runs.
McCullum doesn’t run down the wicket, he hurls. It’s not a charge, it’s a challenge. The first ball from Starc might have beaten him, but that doesn’t stop him, it seems to spur him on. The Aussies must know who they are playing against, he must show them, he must bash them, he must end them.
He is three paces down the wicket, and two outside the leg stump. He is standing in the middle of the MCG, nowhere near the stumps.
Starc follows him. The ball is fast, again, and it comes in at him, again. This time it beats him outside his off stump and inside his leg stump. McCullum turns his head to see if Haddin has taken the ball, and then casually gets back into his crease.
McCullum has not hit a ball. He is under attack.
South Africa lose two early wickets. McCullum places every single New Zealander in a catching position. All four million of them.
McCullum won’t back off. He keeps attacking. He uses up his best overs, he ignores his risky, fifth-bowler overs. He knows, he hopes, that if he goes hell for leather he can bowl South Africa out. He is wrong. In the end the most important force is the weather.
Until McCullum enters with the bat, that is. You might be excited by Chris Gayle. You might love Glenn Maxwell. You might think AB de Villiers is the best batsman on the planet. But every single ball you miss of Brendon McCullum is a moment lost.
Not just the boundary, or play and miss, but the feeling you get as the bowler comes to the crease. The cricket possibilities are endless. He could save the world, chop his own head off, or clear a stand at cover. It is all possible, it is all probable, in that final moment. The moment between delivery stride and McCullum playing a shot is the best moment in cricket right now.
Against South Africa, he might as well have taken a sword, ripped off his clothes, hopped on a wild stallion and ridden into an invading army on his own. He has batted quicker. He has batted better. But never have 26 deliveries been more important to his country.
In McCullum’s 4.2 over spell of destruction, he changed the entire run chase. It was mad. It was beautiful. It was almost enough.
Later, New Zealand would win thanks to Corey Anderson and Grant Elliott. The whole country celebrated. They had defeated the semi-final. They had won the biggest game of their country’s cricket existence. They had won.
They were almost World Cup champions.
Thirty-nine years is a long time to wait for your first Test series win. When New Zealand did finally win a series, they did it in their own way. They had no champions in the team that won the only Test out of three. In that Test, the top score was from a Pakistani, and so was the only five-wicket haul. They had a collapse of 4 for 4. When they were finally chasing the target of 82, they lost five wickets. Plus, they did it away from home.
In the third Test they had to hold on for the draw. They did it because one man made the heroic contribution of 23 and four wickets in the match.
In the third innings, New Zealand fell to 108 for 8, with a lead of less than a hundred. Then Mark Burgess was joined at the crease by Bob Cunis.
Neither would have played much, if at all, for other countries. Burgess played 50 Tests and averaged 31.20. Cunis was, and will always be, known as famously “neither one thing nor the other”.
In two hours these two put on 96 runs. They put on a lead. Took time out of the game. Gave some hope. Burgess made a hundred, his second first-class hundred; Cunis 23. Which is neither one thing nor the other.
Pakistan’s chase was two hours and 20 minutes long to score 184. Pakistan shut up after losing four wickets. Cunis took all four, 4 for 21. In that whole match, he took only four wickets and made 23 runs. In his whole career, he made one fifty and took one five-wicket haul. In the history of New Zealand cricket, there have been greater personal performances, but few that were as important. Bob Cunis was one thing that day: a hero.
Don Neely, a former first-class cricketer and cricket official, later said: “It’s a pity this side hasn’t had greater recognition – perhaps their achievements were overshadowed by other world events in those tumultuous times, which saw men walking on the moon, as well as Vietnam and Woodstock.”
New Zealand cricket had survived a war, some of the most humiliating defeats in Test cricket and a train tragedy, all on their way to one Test series win.
McCullum has three slips. The ball is swinging. Aaron Finch is a distance away from it. And McCullum smiles.
The rest of the world might think this is a formality. But McCullum has not given up. He has the smile of a man who knows the future, and it’s a World Cup victory for New Zealand.
His smile is misguided, and magnificent.
New Zealand’s second Test series win was against West Indies in 1979-80. They would be the only Test side to beat a full-strength West Indies. That started a whole new era of New Zealand cricket. The greatest days, at home and away. They beat Australia and England. They survived the underarm ball. And the team included a comic villain and a pretty hero.
That moustache. There was no way around it. It was the moustache of a villain. It wasn’t just the moustache. Richard Hadlee had the sharp features of someone who would tie a young girl to a train line. And his eyes. They were supposed to look at you like that. Always. Hadlee seemed to pop out of a 1920s film and straight into the bowling crease. When Australian crowds called him a “wanker”, it was the highest honour they could bestow.
Martin Crowe was like a beautifully illustrated coaching manual come to life. He managed to play forward and still late. He rotated the strike right up until the moment there was a ball he could hit for four, and then it went. His batting was calm and complete. When Crowe pushed through point, you wanted to convert to him.
New Zealand had a team around them as well. They were the good old days. In 14 series New Zealand won nine times.
But they weren’t the best team on earth, West Indies were. They never even made the semi-final of a World Cup in this era. New Zealand might have been at their best. But they weren’t the best.
On the back page of Melbourne’s biggest newspaper it said, “Hey Bro” with a photo of Brendon McCullum. He is the superstar of this New Zealand team. Australia is a country that doesn’t know the difference between a Trent Boult, a Kane Williamson and a Luke Ronchi (even though he used to play for them). They know McCullum.
McCullum has a great team, but he’s the face, the brawn, the leading man. And the man who can take Australia’s whole World Cup away.
But he’s still not hit a ball after the first two deliveries. And the MCG is salivating as one. The whole ground feels moist. Eager. Desperate. Lustful.
McCullum doesn’t run, charge or hurl down the wicket. He stays in his crease. Starc doesn’t hoop the ball. It isn’t a Wasim Akram ball. It didn’t have a devious mind and a cunning plan. It was straight and full, and it faded back.
McCullum played it like a man who had just played and missed twice. McCullum was late. McCullum was wide. McCullum was out.
The MCG reacted like it had won the World Cup. You could feel the shake in the stands. You could feel the shake in every person. You could feel the concrete erupting.
The MCG had just won the World Cup.
New Zealand will fight, they will hope, they will “dare to dream” but they will come to find what the MCG already knew – it wasn’t their day.
“The greatest time of our lives” is how Brendon McCullum described this tournament. It was perhaps the greatest time of New Zealand cricket. Eight straight wins and a trip to the MCG for a magical day.
It was almost. But their greatest almost.
MS Dhoni nurdled. Not ones or twos, but a cacophony of nurdles. Flays were nowhere to be seen. There was little flashing, let alone flashing hard. Tracer bullets were left in the dressing room. There were no helicopters.
Dhoni was calm, Dhoni knows only calm. Panic was for mortals, not Indian World Cup winning captains. The nurdles, the nudges, the pokes, the prods. They were all building towards something big. Five overs of solid accumulation. No need for panic. Plenty of time left, plenty of Dhoni left.
There was one big swing coming, maybe this was it. Maybe it would start here, with an edge to third man and quickly run two. No.
Two overs later, there was a smash down the ground. And then a flash, one that was quite hard. Two boundaries in the over. Here it was.
Then the batting Powerplay. Dhoni and Rahane. Both set. Both ready. Dhoni was giving himself room. Those brutish arms were ready. When he could reach the ball, he guided it to the fence. This would be it. Then eighth ball of the Powerplay, Rahane was out. Dhoni questioned the umpire about the decision while readjusting his gloves.
Dhoni faced a lot of balls after this. There were no big shots, there were dot balls, singles, and one two. The two was a drop. Dropping Dhoni in an ODI chase is like inviting India to defeat you. There is an asylum filled with former cricketers who have never gotten over this moment in their life. But when Clarke dropped Dhoni, he looked very serene. There was frustration, but not Dhoni-level frustration. There were jokes about him dropping the World Cup, but few really believed it.
Soon after, Dhoni was using soft hands to guide one into the offside. He looked unsure if there was a run there. Jadeja told him there was.
Earlier in the match, Jadeja hit Finch on the pads. Jadeja thought it was plumb. The umpire thought different. Jadeja pleaded with his captain to review. Dhoni gestured that the ball hit outside the offstump. It was a typical Dhoni gesture – laid back, calm, but very clear. Jadeja ignored it. He pleaded more. He had to have this review. And Dhoni, against his own judgment reviewed it. It was hitting outside the line.
In the single, it was again Jadeja, the impetuous, the passionate, and the mistaken. Dhoni had let Jadeja make two big decisions in the match. The referral, as annoying as it was, meant very little. The call for the single meant everything .
Dhoni’s next two deliveries went for six. Finally, with seemingly all hope gone from his support cast, Dhoni had been stung into action. It was 121 from 48 before his sixes. But that was cricket maths, Dhoni does Dhoni maths. The first six was a waddle and a whack over cover. The second was a dance and punch over mid off.
He was here. The savior. The hero. The man generations of Indians will tell their grandkids about. The man who promised and delivered victory. The man who thanked Sachin Tendulkar personally. The Dhoni.
But, no, it wasn’t. For the next eight balls, there were only five runs. Dhoni was struck on the body. He picked out fielders. And even the believers, even those who had grown up only in the era of believing in Dhoni, couldn’t believe anymore. It seemed, that even Dhoni didn’t believe. He wasn’t holding himself back. He wasn’t calculating when to attack. He was defeated. Out on his feet, not the Dhoni, but just an aging wicketkeeping batsman from Jharkhand.
Four years earlier, in the final, this same man had come in even earlier in the innings. He scored 91 from 78 balls. He helicoptered to victory. He looked invincible, untouchable, supreme, like he had been placed on the earth for only this purpose.
Now, he was scratching around at barely a run a ball. He couldn’t middle his pull shots. Even his biggest hits weren’t reaching the fielders. He had no faith in his lower order. Seemingly little faith in himself.
Dhoni then clipped a Starc ball onto the leg side. It went straight to Maxwell’s right hand. Maxwell flung it at the stumps. Dhoni slowed down. There was no dive, no real run, not even a reach with his bat. He didn’t make his ground.
It was like, mid-single he decided to retire. It was like mid-single, he decided there was no point just putting his bat over the line.
Dhoni had run out of nurdles. He flashed hard, in vain, rarely, and had only two tracer bullets left. There was no helicopter to glory. No helicopter to safety. No helicopters at all.
Australia and India are part of the “axis of admin” currently running world cricket. That shouldn’t mean you confuse them for friends.
Administrators from both countries happily badmouth each other. Cricket Australia tells people they will hold the BCCI to their ethics. The BCCI tells everyone that they won’t be given moral lessons by the same Cricket Australia that runs the bully Australian teams.
On the field, it is often much the same.
There was a time when Australians completely ignored India. On the field, off the field, as a country. Australia spent decades without winning a Test series in India, but they also spent decades hardly playing a series there in the first place. Australia toured India five times in their first 50 years. They played for the first time in India 24 years after India’s first Test, which even when the Second World War is accounted for, is quite some time.
Even when Kerry Packer went around the world looking for players for World Series Cricket, the Indians weren’t tapped on the shoulder. Sunil Gavaskar and Bishan Bedi could have played, but one was a blocker and the other a spinner; it wasn’t box office. They weren’t playing the game the right way, the Australian way.
Before 2001, this was kind of how Indian cricket was seen in Australia. As this effeminate version of cricket that really wasn’t for Australians. They didn’t bowl fast. They didn’t smash the ball. They didn’t travel well. And Australians had to take food to their country just to survive it.
Australia hadn’t won in India since 1969, but now it was just a matter of time. Coming into India’s enforced second innings, Australia had won their last 16 and a half Test matches.
Australia first tried to take his wicket driving. He drove, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket pulling. He pulled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with slower balls. He waited, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with ring fields. He pierced, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with bowling in the rough. He smashed, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket in the slips. He middled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket by giving up. He batted, they took no wicket.
VVS made 281. When India started to follow on, they were 274 behind. VVS beat the follow-on.
If you were taking on a team of Don Bradman, George Headley, Barry Richards, Viv Richards, Victor Trumper and WG Grace, you would not be unhappy to take Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne with you. By the end, Steve Waugh used every player on his roster other than himself, probably due to health reasons, and Adam Gilchrist. Waugh had one of the greatest bowling attacks in cricket, and he was bowling Justin Langer.
VVS didn’t just beat Australia; he beat their entire system. He beat their will. He beat their ego. And he did it in such a way that Australia had to give up. India could no longer be ignored. India didn’t play cricket the Australian way, they played it the Indian way.
From there on in, you could buy DVDs of an Indian tour in Australian supermarkets. This was a country that only shortly before were happy enough to laugh, or at least cringe in silence, as former Australian Greg Ritchie did a long-running racist portrayal of Indians on TV. Australia went from a country that called Indians “curry munchers” to a country that was now desperate to beat them.
Then there was the money. India meant money. Not DVD sales but TV rights. The money jumped up every time Australia hosted India. Hosting 70,000 people at the MCG was nice, hosting India in a Test series was the greatest show on earth.
Then the Sydney Test of 2008 happened. Not many people come out of that Test well. Not either cricket boards or key players from either side. And when India threatened to travel home, Australia for the first time truly realised that they were no longer the masters of their relationship. To use the language of George Costanza, they had no hand.
This was India’s relationship, this was India’s sport, this was India’s money.
Matthew Hayden had called India third world and he had called one of their players an obnoxious weed. Yet, in the corner of N Srinivasan’s India Cements office there is a bat given to him by Hayden. Now Hayden can be seen doing embarrassing video selfies for an Indian TV company.
Thanks to the IPL, Australian cricketers were treated more like rock stars in India than they ever had been at home. At the Wankhede stadium there was once a 30-foot-high picture of Aiden Blizzard. In Australia he could wear an “I am Aiden Blizzard” sandwich board in Bourke St and not be recognised. Before most Australians knew who Aaron Finch was, he could be seen in hair product ads in India.
Steve Waugh had taken to India out of love for the country. And Australian cricketers had always felt much love from Indians. But now they felt it in their wallets. Brett Lee ended up in Bollywood films. Even John Buchanan has given speeches on business in India.
Then there is the Australian success in the IPL. They win a lot of titles, as captains, as coaches. Their players win a lot of personal awards. Many have pointed to the amount of useless Australian players in the IPL as a weakness of the tournament, but they are there because they have shown a lot of success. The IPL rated David Warner and Glenn Maxwell as much as, or in some cases long before, the Australian selectors did.
These same players are often now team-mates one week, adversaries the next. It has forged strong friendships and epic feuds. The more you know someone, the more chance you will like them or despise them. And with the IPL, Champions league and Australia v India matches being seemingly played 11 months of the year, it can brew a lot of hate.
You could see that when India lost the last Test series. Even during the Test that was as close to a memorial game as Test cricket has produced, the players got in each other’s faces. Some former team-mates, others constant rivals.
India were easily beaten on the field, but with their mouths they fought out more than the two draws they managed. They didn’t seem to even turn up for the ODIs in the tri-series; they even lost to the second-tier ODI side England. They haven’t lost since.
This is all different. This is a bragging right over your friends and enemies for life. This can help a cricketer turn from a hero to an immortal. Madan Lal played 39 Tests, but he is remembered for one ball in a World Cup. This matters to virtually all fans. Even the Test fans who still look down on ODIs. This is a World Cup semi-final. Australia are playing for a home final. India are playing for back to back. And they are playing each other.
For years India wanted to prove they could be the best. Now they want to prove they are better than the best. They’ve won three ICC tournaments since their World T20 in 2007. They probably should have won more. Last World Cup they lost to South Africa and tied with England. This time they have been magnificent. So a loss now, as champions, to Australia, is unthinkable.
For Australia, this is their World Cup. Even the promos have sometimes forgotten that New Zealand existed. Even their loss to New Zealand was so tiny, dramatic and chaotic that it was seen more as a great bad game of cricket than an actual loss. But a loss to India, at the SCG, will not be explained away, it will fester.
Australia are attacking with bat and ball. Their only spin option is a batsman who often talks better than he bowls. They have so many players who can hit sixes, a few of whom do it better than they rotate the strike. Their fielders are loud and athletic. Their bowlers are fast and aggressive. There is no doubt, even at a glance, that this is an Australian ODI team.
India are batting slower than they did last tournament. They seem to be backing themselves to get near 300 on autopilot. Their batsmen are almost all below 100 strike rate. Their fast bowlers seem excited by the two new balls and the bounce in the tracks. The rest of us are excited by their wickets. R Ashwin is in control. MS Dhoni wrote the program on modern ODI cricket. It’s sensible caution with flashes of all-out attack.
This is a clash of strategy. And of methods, culture and politics. This is a new-era rivalry. Not as ancient as the Ashes, or as passionate as India-Pakistan. Two countries that are so different, yet share rampant egotism, high self-opinion and a belief that being born in their country is superior to other births. This brings together a belligerent bunch of brats, bullies and braggers.
This is the “battle of the bullies”.