FAfter three weeks of World Cup austerity, there were finally a few games where the game was all that mattered. Up to this point, apart from the good vibes from underdogs Netherlands and Afghanistan beating a couple of established teams, we’ve heard less stories and more talking points: what a result means, how it affects the table position, what that table looks like affects the tournament itself.
There were individual performances but there was a lack of competitive excitement as the home fans found the sight of India moving from city to city a kind of traveling moral lesson, ritually spanking each opponent to the delight of the crowd.
Then, in two nights, the competition got real. Against Pakistan on Friday, as they did against the Netherlands, South Africa transformed from werewolves to confused teenagers, from a team batting monsters first at 400 to a team faltering second at 250. Keshav Maharaj executed the Heimlich on his own side and ended the chase nine adrift.
Haris Rauf is increasingly becoming a tragic bowling figure, like Wahab Riaz before him: he roars for the last wicket not given by the umpire, and the review shows that it is a call by the umpire, with about 49% of the Balls throw a leg stump out of the ground.
In Dharamsala on Saturday it was Jimmy Neesham’s turn, with the same sense of poignancy that he has evoked in the spectators since the 2019 final, that recurring day when his heroics with bat and ball were not enough to convey the cruelty of the Randomly defeat the fine print of the tournament tiebreaker.
This game was extraordinary: Australia pipped New Zealand to victory by 389, a score of a magnitude only successfully surpassed in South Africa’s famous 438 game in 2006. New Zealand almost made it. They needed 124 from 78 balls when Neesham went to mid-on at number 7. It was 96 from 58 as Rachin Ravindra’s great innings came to an end, 69 from 39 when Mitchell Santner hit a high top edge, and 43 from 20 when Matt Henry cut the ball for a catch, and 19 from the last over with Trent Boult as a companion and only Lockie Ferguson’s strained Achilles tendon next.
Just moments earlier, Neesham had beaten Mitchell Starc over cover for the most perfect lofted drive, added six more over long-on and split Josh Hazlewood’s midwicket gap for four. Starc started the final with five wides. For Neesham, it seemed like a belated redress from the universe, reducing his request from six to 14. Twice he hit the ball violently into a gap, twice the Australians’ absurdly good fielding converted four runs into two.
Since he needed seven from two balls, his last gift was a full throw, which he didn’t hit cleanly. On a second attempt he was run out from deep. The game all but ended with Neesham lying face down in the dirt, a literal addition to his previous metaphorical incidents, and was formalized by Ferguson, unsurprisingly, failing to hit a six off the first ball.
The Australians breathed a sigh of relief. Of course they should have had the game in the bag, but despite the recent improvements, some things aren’t perfect. One is batting in the middle of the innings and the other is bowling in the early innings.
In the former, their total of 388 should have been over 400 given the start provided by David Warner and Travis Head. Warner has been in great form in warm-ups and group games in recent weeks – aggressive and mediocre in almost everything. Head had been watching from the couch until this week while recovering from a broken hand, but he went in and hit the ball just as cleanly.
An opening stand of 175 from 19 overs is the stuff of video games. But after being put on first drop to allow Head’s return, Mitchell Marsh contributed a strange 36 from 51 balls, hitting part-time spin like Glenn Phillips was Jim Laker, while Marnus Labuschagne couldn’t move. In 14 overs after Head’s dismissal, Australia added 67 before Glenn Maxwell, Josh Inglis and Pat Cummins later regained momentum, although the tenth wicket fell in the last over.
That lunch break looked like it would cost Australia as Ravindra, in contrast, artfully attacked the middle overs after New Zealand’s top order got off to a quick start. Since the three quick wickets against India at the start of the World Cup, Australia’s new bowlers have failed to make an impact.
Even the India game gave up a 164-run partnership that started in the third over. South Africa’s opening stand was 108, Sri Lanka’s 125, Pakistan’s 134. Changes in spin and pace in the middle of the innings have pushed some of these games back. New Zealand were 168 for two after making 73 in the first 10 overs.
Australia have won a classic but with four group games before the knockout stages there is still a lot of work to do.