New Zealand’s greatest almost

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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