March 24, 2015

Triumph and disaster in an unforgiving minute

The difference between New Zealand and South Africa in Auckland was a matter of moments: fleeting minutes that laid bare the fickle beauty and cruelty of sport

For AB de Villiers and South Africa, the fact that they were part of the best match of the World Cup will be of no solace © ICC

Without the knowledge and experience of pain, the pleasures of sport will never feel truly sweet. And because sport provides such incredible highs, it must also be accompanied by corresponding lows - with every triumph must come heartbreak. And when a match goes down to the wire like this heart-stopper between New Zealand and South Africa did, when one ball or one shot in the last over decides who goes to the World Cup final, these emotions are that much more profound: they can last a lifetime.

How can one even attempt to comprehend what Grant Elliott, South African-born but at home in New Zealand for 14 years, would have felt the moment the penultimate ball of the match soared from the middle of his bat into the night sky and into the stands; or the aching hole in the gut of Dale Steyn, champion bowler, South Africa's spearhead, entrusted with the biggest job of his life and the hopes of a nation.

Whatever happens in the final, this one ball will define Elliott's career. Whatever had happened in the preceding 85.4 overs in the day, Elliott, who was arguably a marginal selection for the World Cup squad, will be forever remembered as the man who took a small nation to the biggest stage of the game. It was a matter of centimetres and the ball - as it had done a few overs before, when Elliot survived a chance - could have landed in the lap of a fielder.

In this fickleness lies the beauty and cruelty of sport; cricket in particular, because it contains so many moments with so many possibilities. It is moments like these that can make a fringe player a hero for life, and condemn one of the greatest players of his generation to a lifetime of hurt. Amid the rapturous scenes around them - the crowd of 40,000 carried the energy and spirit of four million people - the desolation, the utter devastation, of the 11 South African players cut the most striking and poignant image.

Faf du Plessis, who had been soul provider for the South African innings, sank his face into his palms, possibly to hide his tears; Morne Morkel, who had almost bowled his team to victory, sat motionless, the weight of his body resting on his hands, a picture of hopeless resignation. No one cut a lonelier figure, though, than Steyn, who sat hunched on his knees for what seemed an eternity. For a while, everyone mourned alone, and then some summoned the courage to congratulate the winners, while others gathered around du Plessis, who was now looking inconsolable. Steyn, who had now been lifted off the pitch by, who else but Elliott in another moment of incredible poignancy, was left standing alone, hands on his hips, staring into emptiness.

Elliott later said that even in his moment of glory he felt compassion for the vanquished. Only a fellow cricketer could have felt the depth of their despondency. In a matter of two balls, he said, it could have been him. Far away in the press box, with much less invested in the game, my heart was pounding through the final over, and my fingers were still shaking a few minutes later as I tried to type a message. Next to me, Firdose Moonda, our South Africa correspondent, couldn't help her tears. I gave her a hug, but Steyn was the man you desperately wanted to reach out to at that moment.

The match was full of mistakes. New Zealand committed almost as many as the South Africans, if not more. A catch was dropped in the second over, and by the third over both openers had been reprieved. Two more catches were spilled later, and one of them was off AB de Villiers, of all people. The ground fielding was excellent, as ever, but there was the odd batting blip. Martin Guptill, the double-centurion in New Zealand's last victory, was needlessly run out, and Ross Taylor's was a soft dismissal at a crucial juncture. But sport and history are generous to the follies of the winners, and it is South Africa who will be haunted by theirs.

De Villiers, who had to drag himself to be subjected to the media conference - so that we could poke at his scars to gauge the extent of his bleeding - was asked whether he had let go of the World Cup with his missed run-out. He had fumbled a hard throw on the half-volley and broke the stumps with empty hands. Let off, Corey Anderson went on to add 25 vital runs.

"If you want to see it that way," he said with an air of melancholy, "that I cost us, then I will gladly take it." But that was not the only chance, he said. "We had our chances after that too." He was referring to a dropped catch off Elliott in the outfield, when JP Duminy ran into Farhaan Berhadien, which led to the ball being grassed with New Zealand still 14 runs from victory.

Minutes later, when the South Africa coach Russell Domingo took his seat in the firing line, de Villiers sat next to him, eyes hollow, face blank, mind in a distant place. A while later, he buried his head, waiting for the ordeal to end. No one can lord over a one-day match like he can, and today he scored 65 off 45 balls, but a cricket match, more than anything else, is won and lost in moments.

New Zealand managed to exorcise the ghosts, and the pains, of 1992 in a match that will rank among the most dramatic in the history of the World Cup. As the winning runs were hit, my mind turned to Martin Crowe, still a hero, but now dearest of friends, and who is currently in ESPNcricinfo's studio in Sydney. He led that heroic but ultimately heartbreaking campaign and has carried that hurt for 23 years. Maybe it will lift today.

For de Villiers and South Africa, the pain will linger. That they were part of the best match of the tournament will be no solace. Upon the most colossal heartbreaks are the greatest and the most stirring sporting stories built. It's harsh. But that's why sport moves us so much.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal

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