We’re a cautious lot, we New Zealand fans. If our interest was the theatre, we would have gone to the Cake Tin yesterday hoping for a decent performance of something worthy. Ibsen, say, or Pinter. The provincial reviews had been good, but this was the West End, the knock-out stage. All we wanted was for the Brendon McCullum Players to remember enough lines to get us to the semi-final. Instead we got the most lavish Broadway show imaginable, full orchestra song and dance from start to end. Martin Guptill: the Musical.
What I love about cricket is its capacity for surprise, its ability to exceed expectation. After, yes, half a century watching the game you think you know what the parameters are. You assume, for example, that you will never see someone, particularly a New Zealander, score 237 not out in a World Cup knock-out game.
It was glorious. This New Zealand summer has conjured up cricket that stands with the best of the past fifty years. Williamson and Watling at the Basin, Southee at the Cake Tin, Sangakkara anywhere, McCullum everywhere. This innings of Guptill’s was the best of the lot. It has to be judged against Cowdrey at Canterbury in 1975, Richards at Lord’s in 1979, Slater at Sydney in 1999, to name but three, as the best I have seen.
It was the shots he didn’t play, as much as those he did, that measured its quality. No reverse laps, ramps or premeditated movements. Pure cricket, from the Rolex timing of the push drive that sent the first ball of the innings to the straight boundary to the pull that put the ball on the roof in the final over. Watch a recording of the innings and see how straight is the backlift, even for cross-bat shots. As well as being spectacular and surprising it was aesthetically pleasing, which the best batting always is.
Incidentally, it is not true, as has been reported, that Craig McMillan is the only batsman to hit the ball onto the roof of the Cake Tin. Guptill has done it once before, off Lonwabo Tsotsobe of South Africa in a T20 in 2012, a hit estimated at 125 metres, 15 metres longer than yesterday’s. His two-fingered gesture to McMillan after the hit was not, as Simon Doull said on commentary, to say “two of us have done it” but “I’ve done it twice”. Michael Lumb of England also did it, in a T20 in 2013.
Guptill’s innings changed in tempo. At times early on runs were hard to come by. His century came up in 111 balls, which is hardly laggardly. At that point it was already a classy, memorable innings. He got there in the 35th over, just before the start of the powerplay. With only two wickets down, the foot could be pressed firmly to the floor.
Cricket is a game of numbers, and those for this match stretch credulity. Guptill’s second century came in just 41 balls. All eleven of his sixes came after the century mark. 207 came for New Zealand from the final 15 overs, 85 from the final five. It was wonderful.
From the third ball of the first over, Marlon Samuels became Dick Rowe for a day. Rowe was the Decca Records executive who, in 1962, refused to sign the Beatles on the grounds that guitar groups were on the way out. Samuels had the opportunity to send Guptill back to the rooms, but put down a sharp but catchable low chance at square leg. That was the only one Guptill offered. Just as Rowe would have spent the following years avoiding news of the Fab Four’s record sales, so Samuels spent the next 49 overs looking in any direction but that of the scoreboards as they audited the ever-increasing scale of his error.
A word in praise of Ross Taylor, who has been a worry for New Zealand supporters during the World Cup. He is hard to get out, but has got stuck in situations that he has hit himself out of in the past. Yesterday, he began slowly, with 23 off 43 balls, but he scored a run a ball thereafter and supported Guptill superbly in a partnership of 143, an excellent platform for the ensuing carnage.
Guptill is very fast between the wickets but is sometimes more cagey about his intentions than his partner would find ideal. We had already had one episode in which he and Taylor headed intently for the same end, so it was no surprise when Taylor was run out.
Earlier, Williamson had looked in as good touch as Guptill and it was a surprise when he got out to a soft shot. Later, Anderson, Elliott, Ronchi and Vettori all added to the mayhem.
My heart was filled with joy at New Zealand’s display. Yet it was also a little broken. I have written often enough about how early exposure to the West Indians fed my love of cricket. One of them was at the Cake Tin yesterday: the great Clive Lloyd of Guyana, Lancashire and the West Indies, the captain who brought together Jamaicans, Bajans, Trinidadians et al and made them a great West Indian team.
For Clive Lloyd, watching the shambles that the West Indies became in the final fifteen overs of the New Zealand innings must have been awful. How can the team of Richards, Sobers, Marshall, Greenidge, Holding and the rest have come to this?
To see England humiliated was comedy. To see the degradation of the West Indies was tragedy. The writer Dileep Premachandran recently tweeted “each time West Indies do well, the inner 10-year-old pumps his fist”. Today, the boy wept.
Jason Holder, the 23-year-old fast bowler who has been lumbered with the captaincy, looked bereft towards the end, and placed himself at long on, symbolically near the exit to the dressing rooms. It is always a bad sign when the skipper fields on the boundary. A little later, Darren Sammy, one of many recent captains, was seen in heated debate with the bench.
The fielding lacked commitment. Where were the dives, where were the support fielders? How the crowd roared later when all three of New Zealand’s slip fielders chased a ball to the boundary. What a difference.
So it was good that the West Indies took an adventurous approach to their futile task of chasing 394 for victory. They achieved more than was expected in maintaining a rate of eight an over for the 31 overs that they lasted.
But, in the words of a young member of the catering staff who took a seat behind us when they ran out of chips, West Indies were doing well “apart from the wickets thing”. Indeed. In cricket, it’s the wickets thing that gets you in the end. The wickets fell regularly and they never stood a chance of getting near. New Zealand knew how much protection they had and did not panic.
There were two noteworthy aspects to the innings. First Daniel Vettori’s catch at third man to dismiss Samuels. Vettori has always been highly competent in the field, but has never presented the world with an athletic persona. So, when, at the age of 36, he executed a perfectly timed, improbably high standing jump to pluck the ball from the night, it was as surprising as Maggie Smith rapping.
My Blean correspondent and myself have long been connoisseurs of one-legged innings, those made by batsmen under physical duress. The benchmark has always been Basil D’Oliveira’s half-century in the Benson and Hedges final in ’76. Despite his elderly hamstring having pinged earlier, D’Oliveira almost turned the game.
There was Basharat Hassan’s century at Canterbury the following year. Also Terry (though it might have been Michael) Parlane’s hundred at the Basin four or five years ago.
Chris Gayle’s 61 from 33 balls, with eight sixes, may have beaten them all. He has a bad back and could only hobble singles when there would normally have been a safe two. All of us who thought that Gayle’s non-appearance against the UAE was simply because he couldn’t be arsed, owe him an apology. Yet his hitting was devastating, if Sisyphean.
New Zealand’s two World Cup games at the Cake Tin have been two of the best days I have ever spent at the cricket. Years hence I shall remember them if I can’t recall my own name. The nation has become consumed with cricket. You hear people talking about it as you walk down the street. I have always wanted to live in such a place.
Tuesday, South Africa, Eden Park.