Five balls, so many stories – the last-over drama of that semi-final

It would have been an incredible finale regardless, but the sheer number of stories threaded through South Africa v New Zealand of the 2015 Cricket World Cup meant it became something very special. ANDY BULL in The Guardian on a brilliantly dramatic game

Sportsmanship: Morne Morkel of New Zealand congratulates Brendon McCullum of South Africa| Ross Setford/AP

Sportsmanship: Morne Morkel of New Zealand congratulates Brendon McCullum of South Africa| Ross Setford/AP

BYE, SINGLE, FOUR, BYE, SIX
(March 24) – Ball one was on a length and landed just outside the line of leg stump. By Dale Steyn’s standards it was slow, and deliberately so. A little under 80mph. Dan Vettori hopped back and swung his bat. Played, missed, and ran anyway. He needed to get Grant Elliott on strike. The two of them had already agreed that with wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock standing so far back they would run regardless. And so they did. A bye, then, and New Zealand need 11 to win or 10 to tie. Do that, and they would go through to the final on the grounds that they’d a better record in the group stages.

It would have been tense anyway. It was a close contest, played for the grand prize of a place in the World Cup final, something neither side had achieved before. But it was so much more excruciating because there was so much history, and so many stories, folded into the space of those five balls. First among those, of course, South Africa’s record in the tournament, running back to the injustice of 1992. Richie Benaud’s rain rule left them needing 22 runs off one ball. Before the rains came, it had been 22 off 13. That very match led to the invention of the Duckworth/Lewis Method. Frank Duckworth was listening on the radio and heard Christopher Martin-Jenkins say “surely someone, somewhere could come up with something better.” Duckworth did.

Eleven years later, Shaun Pollock’s inability to understand exactly how Duckworth’s method worked meant South Africa were knocked out of their own tournament for the want of a single run. Pollock told Mark Boucher that they needed to score 229 to qualify for the semi-finals. Boucher hit one ball for six and blocked the next. Tonight it is another D/L game. This time, South Africa’s innings is interrupted. They lose seven overs, and in the end New Zealand were set a target of 298 from 43. It felt a little like they’d got the better side of the bargain. South Africa had been heading for a total well above 300.

Ball two was a full toss, and fast, almost 90mph. It whistled down wide of Elliott’s off stump. Elliott leapt at it, tried to drive it up over cover. It flew towards David Miller, landed three yards in front of him. Miller dived to his side, dropped his hands, and parried the ball back towards the wicket. In the time it took him to do that, New Zealand took a single. South Africa’s ground fielding had been outstanding all night, but it had let them down in three crucial moments, when wayward throws and over-eager hands had cost them two run-outs, and again when two men almost collided trying to take a catch in the deep. Ten to win, and nine to tie.

In between 1992 and 2003 came that famous tie against Australia at Edgbaston, when Lance Klusener bolted a quick single and Allan Donald froze at the non-striker’s end. All history now, so well known it hardly needs repeating. But here, in this match against New Zealand, you can’t ignore it. No one can. Donald is now South Africa’s bowling coach, and so he was sitting on the sidelines. Pollock was commentating, along with Shane Warne. And so whenever anyone mentioned that word – tie – it felt so heavy with significance that it seemed to fall from their mouths to the floor and land with a thud that startled everyone into awkward silence. Every South African team at every World Cup since has had to play in the shadow of that moment. New Zealand had been to six semi-finals and lost the lot. No one ever accused them of “choking”.

Ball three was a yorker, wide of off stump. For a time it looked as though Steyn wouldn’t be fit to bowl it. He had been struggling with a hamstring problem all night long, and after his last delivery he had to call the team medic out onto the pitch to treat him. It felt like adrenaline was the only thing keeping him going. Vettori cleared his front foot out of the way, bent over into a crouch and thrust his bat out in front of him like he was trying to use it to break his fall. It hit. The ball ran away to Morne Morkel at third man. Moments earlier, Morkel had moved 10 yards to his right so he could stand a little finer. Now he is 10 yards too far away from the ball to stop it. Four. Six to win, five to tie.

Vettori retired from one-day cricket four years ago, after New Zealand were knocked out in the semi-finals of the last World Cup. He was persuaded to come back to play in the Champions Trophy in 2013, but even after that injuries had left him in such bad shape he was only able to play five ODIs in the whole of 2014. When he took a job as the head coach at Royal Challengers Bangalore, it looked like his playing days were done. But at the age of 36, the idea of playing in one final World Cup, and on home soil, was too tempting to ignore. And the team were glad to have him. So far, he’s taken 15 wickets at an average of 19 each. He’d hardly had a chance to bat though. The top order had been playing so well he hadn’t been needed. Until today.

Ball four was a bouncer, dead straight but slow, only 76mph. Vettori threw a pull, way too early, and well away from the path of the ball anyway. Before he’d even finished his follow-through, Elliott was running down the pitch. This time South Africans knew what was coming. De Kock gathered the ball and tossed it underarm back towards the stumps. It missed one set, but rolled to Steyn, halfway down the wicket. He picked it up, turned, tossed it on. Vettori launched himself into a dive. The ball missed the stumps. Another bye. Five to win, four to tie.

In another version of this story, it’s just possible that Grant Elliott would have been on the other side. Elliott was born in Johannesburg, and studied at St Stithians, along with a couple of other exiles, Michael Lumb and Jonathan Trott. He was an outstanding schoolboy cricketer, played 15 games for South Africa U19s. In 1998 he even played a game against New Zealand, when Kyle Mills was on the other side. Now they’re in the same squad at this World Cup. But Elliott never settled on the domestic circuit. In 2003 he left South Africa and signed for Wellington, said he was committed to qualifying for New Zealand. He did. But, like Vettori, a little while ago you would have got long odds on his playing in this tournament. Before this year, he hadn’t played a ODI since 2013. He was the last man in to the squad, making the cut ahead of Jimmy Neesham. The head coach Mike Hesson explained that he wanted Elliott as “experienced cover in the middle order”.

Ball five was back of a length, outside off stump. Just where Elliott wanted it. He caught it clean in the middle of his bat, watched it fly high into the night, through the floodlights and into the stand for six. He thrust his arms up into the air. Steyn collapsed on the ground, flat on his back. And Elliott walked across to offer him a hand up.

Daniel Vettori and Grant Elliott embrace as Dale Steyn thinks about what might have been. Elliott walked over to offer the bowler a hand up | Hannah Peters/Getty Images (Click to enlarge)

Daniel Vettori and Grant Elliott embrace as Dale Steyn thinks about what might have been. Elliott walked over to offer the bowler a hand up | Hannah Peters/Getty Images (Click to enlarge)

• This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email.

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