Netherlands scramble home in pressure-cooker finish
It's funny what pressure does sometimes. This was emotional, this was dramatic, this was tension-ridden cricket like maybe there has never been seen before. With the possible exception of the corresponding match in Kuala Lumpur four years ago.
But how else to describe the Netherlands' come-from-the-clouds two wicket win from the very final delivery of today's ICC Trophy Final against Namibia here in Toronto? And where to look for answers as to how a Namibian team so completely lost its way in the dying stages in its fielding: a facet of the game in which it has been so strong throughout this competition?
As Jacob Jan Esmeijer (58*) somehow swung the Netherlands to victory from the depths of despair at 106/6 as it chased a target of 196 to win, there were two dropped catches, a series of misfields, a pair of missed run outs and then an horrendous end to it all for Namibia as its opponents sought three runs to win from the last delivery.
An Esmeijer glance at a Bjorn Kotze (1/36) offering down the leg side should have seen the ball come to rest in the hands of the fieldsman inside the circle at fine leg as it rolled toward him. Instead, Riaan Walters dived over it, was forced into a chase and, by the time he re-gathered it from its new resting place fifteen metres short of the boundary, the batsmen were madly scrambling back for the third.
Against the backdrop of a setting Toronto sun and the sight of the remainder of the Netherlands' players rushing in delirious triumph on to the field, the Namibians could only look on in horror. It was a simply gut-wrenching finish for them.
"It was quite incredible," said Netherlands captain, Roland Lefebvre of the conclusion.
"It was a very tough game and I think, at one stage, we were practically out of it. We needed something very special and 'JJ' (Esmeijer) certainly gave us something very special.
"The pressure at the end really showed: there were a lot of misfields, a lot of fumbles, a lot of twos which they gave away. I think we capitalised on that, kept going, and played quite cleverly. JJ hit a couple of big ones but there was a lot of twos and quick singles taken to get us close to the target."
It was indeed a skilful performance, even if their opponents' meridianus horribilis played a significant part in the outcome. For a long time, the chase seemed doomed, the combination of accurate bowling from the likes of Rudi van Vuuren (3/35) and Burton van Rooi (1/38) and low, slow bounce in the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club pitch causing the Netherlands innings to unravel.
Of the upper order batsmen, it was only Klaas-Jan van Noortwijk (50) who fully came to terms with matters and even his rate of progress was virtually curtailed at different times. As they variously tumbled to 12/2, 59/4 and then 106/6 in the thirty-eighth over, it seemed that their inability to fully click with the bat in this tournament - albeit that they have only lost one match in three weeks here - was returning to haunt them again.
Enter Esmeijer. To be fair, he was the biggest beneficiary of Namibia's apparent and sudden sense of stage-fright, receiving a significant reprieve with his score at 15 as he drove a Deon Kotze (1/36) delivery to van Vuuren at long on and then dodging bullets again at 37 and 39 as run out chances were squandered. But the value offered by the power of his shotmaking - his lofted on driving a particular feature - and his capacity to dominate the bowlers was inestimable.
As many as 84 runs were plundered from the last ten overs as the match not only went down to the wire but seemingly laid to waste every last piece of it in Toronto.
Earlier, Namibia had produced something of an innings of fits and starts with the bat. There were two fine stands - one of 54 runs for the second wicket between JB Burger (38) and Daniel Keulder (24) and another of 60 for the fourth wicket between Gavin Murgatroyd (50) and Deon Kotze (28) - but wickets continued to fall at almost exactly the wrong moments and the scoring rate only nudged four runs per over for the first time in its closing stages.
In the last match of his fifth ICC Trophy campaign, it was the 38-year old Lefebvre (2/42) who was the shining light for the Netherlands. His effort with the ball was typically near-faultless, remorseless line and length frustrating a series of batsmen. He broke two vital stands, and produced a run out and a catch through three hours during which he rarely failed to keep himself in the action. He also set his fields intelligently and it was a tribute to his control over matters as Netherlands captain that only seventeen boundaries were scored in total in the innings and not once did a pair of Namibian batsmen manage to run a three.
Instead, it was left to Esmeijer to achieve that rare feat and to usher in the scenes of completely contrasting moods in the respective camps that so readily emerge at the end of a finals match. Helpless and crestfalled, the gallant Namibians trudged away with pain and heartbreak having overtaken them; overjoyed, the prospect of a first-ever ICC Trophy crown had fired ecstasy among the entire Netherlands squad.
There is a rest day tomorrow before Scotland meets Canada in the vital third and fourth playoff at the same venue on Tuesday. But it might well take more than just a single rest day to fully recover from this one.