When New Zealand made a trip to the MCG in October to get a feel for the venue as part of their World Cup preparation, there was a notable absentee from the group. Grant Elliott was not among the 20 who tried to absorb the ground in the hope they would return.
They have made it back, for their first World Cup final, in the most thrilling of ways, and Elliott was the man to carry them there with one of the finest closing innings in one-day history. “He did say when I saw him at the end, ‘does this mean I get to come to Melbourne?'” Brendon McCullum said. But despite not being part of the New Zealand squad until the World Cup 15 was named, McCullum insisted it was not a last-minute change of heart.
“I’m not sure he was a bolter, he’d always been in the frame,” he said. “In the Champions Trophy semi-final against Pakistan he was calm under pressure and stepped up on the big occasion. He has spent some time out but by no means was he out altogether. Domestic performances banged the door down. He grabbed the opportunity and reminded last night why he is never a guy to shut the door on.”
As New Zealand awoke on Wednesday – or at least those who had managed to sleep, which did not include coach Mike Hesson, awoke – that innings from Elliott, and the entire semi-final which will go down as one of the great World Cup matches, was the talk of the nation. Radio, TV and newspapers could not get enough. Adorning the front page of the New Zealand Herald was Elliott, arms aloft, under the headline “The final dream…the six that raised the roof.”
In coffee shops and on the streets, cricket was being talked about, people trying to make sense of everything that had happened. “Were you at the game?” was a common question. It will be one of those matches where the 40,000 present at Eden Park swells to many more in years to come.
Elliott, a self-confessed quiet man who does not like the spotlight, was taking it in his stride as players milled around their Auckland hotel awaiting departure to Melbourne. “Grant is pretty calm,” Hesson said.
Brendon McCullum said: “They came into the changing room for a beer, they were outstanding the way they played and took defeat in their stride as tremendous ambassadors. They showed graciousness in defeat. No one would dispute how good they’ve been and we had to play exceptionally well to beat them.”
A case of the calm after the storm following the heady closing exchanges when the match swung one way then the other. “We were in two separate areas, we didn’t want to move towards the end,” Hesson said. “Half of us were upstairs and half downstairs keeping in touch on a walkie-talkie. When it happened we just jumped up, hugged anyone in sight, yelled and ran downstairs as quick as we could.”
The presence of Elliott in the middle made Hesson and McCullum believe they were never out of the contest. “There were times we were behind the eight-ball,” Hesson said. “To be fair to Morne Morkel he bowled a great over in the 38th when he got Corey out and the rate went big again. That was probably a time when I thought we were in trouble, but never thought we were out of it.”
McCullum, watching on after his 26-ball 59 put New Zealand ahead of the rate, said: “I was pretty calm for most of it, then towards end with no more part to play I had immense faith but it was always an unknown. It took something special to get across the line and Grant was the man to do it.”
When Anderson departed, 46 were needed off five overs. Elliott then put AB de Villiers over deep midwicket, but still it came down to 23 off two and then 18 off eight balls before Elliott cracked Morkel through the covers and was dropped next ball in the deep. Both Elliott and Vettori were alert in running to the wicketkeeper before the final blow.
“Calmness under pressure in the middle, that’s where you need that experience and a guy who can pace a chase,” Hesson said. “He’s done everything and more than we could have asked. There were a few doubters early, but then he got that hundred in Dunedin and a few other pretty damn good innings. I think most people realised he’s a pretty good cricketer.”
After the immediate outpouring of emotion, from the players and the crowd, the team stayed behind at Eden Park, spending time with the South Africans before returning to their hotel and continuing to reflect on what they had achieved.
“We stood around and the guys gave their thoughts,” Hesson said. “Heartfelt emotion, what it meant for the guys to get to where we have done. We’ve got a chance to put on good show on Sunday, and we’ll prepare for that, but also realise we’ve achieved something pretty special.
“It’s a really special time for everyone involved. We are all cricket lovers, involved in the game for a very long time and have loved it since we were kids. There’s a huge amount of pride in being part of a team to make a World Cup final.”
And this time Elliott will be on the plane with them to Melbourne.