'You have to play like you don't care, but you have to care a lot'
"Grant Elliott. Superman."
Ian Smith on air can be parochial. He can use the word "we" for New Zealand. He is not always the sharpest with analysis of opposition players. But to capture a crowd's excitement in New Zealand, to truly describe what a moment means to New Zealand, Smith is just the right man. He is losing his voice at the end of an exciting, emotion-filled night, but finds the correct words.
Grant Elliott was a South African once. He is a New Zealander now. At the age of 35, he would have retired had he not been picked for this World Cup. He has now played perhaps the most important shot in the history of New Zealand cricket. He has hit Dale Steyn for six over long-on in a tense chase to take New Zealand through to the World Cup final. He has provided closure for years of torment after the 1992 World Cup semi-final defeat at the same iconic venue, Eden Park. Closure for Martin Crowe, fighting cancer and just coming to terms with his decision to not field in order to save his hamstring for the 1992 final, whereupon Pakistan made short work of a stiff target. Closure, perhaps, for John Wright, the acting captain in Crowe's absence that day. Closure for all the fans who witnessed that semi-final defeat and three more after that.
Elliott, to some a man who moved from South Africa just so he could play for lesser-competitive New Zealand, a mercenary of sorts, has just beaten the country of his birth. He has broken their hearts, reduced them to tears. He was not in the 19-man New Zealand party that took on tour of the MCG in October 2014 to familiarise themselves with the ground because only seven of them had played there previously, and their only match there in the 2015 World Cup would be the final. It can be intimidating for veterans at the MCG, let alone first-timers, so New Zealand wanted to get a feel of it beforehand.
Elliott sent Brendon McCullum an angry text when he wasn't taken to the G. He told the selectors he was "very disappointed". He has now carried the whole team to the MCG. There should be songs written about this man. Movies should be made. Everybody who made the genius move to pick Elliott, who had not played an ODI in 14 months, should have their brains mapped for the good of future generations.
Elliott is watching cartoons with his sons at 6am the next morning.
James Neesham to Grant Elliott on Twitter: "good luck for the cup mate. Go hard!"
Elliott's response: "Thanks mate, feel for you. You have a lot of good times ahead of you!
This is a classy exchange between a 24-year allrounder, the man for the future, who has lost out to the man for now. The announcement of Elliott's selection for the World Cup at the cost of Neesham comes a day after the Basin Reserve Test, where Neesham dismissed Kumar Sangakkara for 203 - one of his three wickets in New Zealand's win. In eight Tests he averages 43.28 with the bat and his 11 wickets have cost him 33 each. In 16 ODIs he has taken 18 wickets at an average of 32. Yet it is perhaps his batting, with an average of 15, that seems to have gone against him. It is still a big surprise because Corey Anderson and Neesham have been the allrounders earmarked for great things over the last year.
A reader's comment on ESPNcricinfo says: "Leaving Neesham out I cannot understand. He averaged over 80 in the recent test series, and contributed well with the ball - I would argue he is equal to Elliot with the ball, and far superior with the bat. That decision is almost impossible to understand, but hey, they obviously see something I don't."
You have to ask Elliott if they told him what they saw in him. Something not many did. "Ross [Taylor] is playing well, Kane [Williamson] is playing well, Brendon [McCullum] is playing well," Elliott says. "Then we had the likes of Neesham and Corey Anderson. They are both very good allrounders. I guess I was forgotten about. Then I showed some form leading into the World Cup… Neesham, I think he was a bit injured. They needed someone who could play the dual role, but they needed someone with experience in the middle. I was fortunate enough to get that No. 5 spot
"Brendon going up the order - that changed things. Then they were looking for someone who was 70% batter, and his bowling was a bonus. Fortunately I was someone… I don't think it was between me and Jimmy at all. It was either going to be a pure batter or myself, who offered a little bit with the ball. I was just lucky, with Corey at six as well."
In the 50-over Ford Trophy, Elliott had scored 193 and taken six wickets in four matches. In Wellington's successful campaign in the domestic T20s, he had scored 160 runs at a strike rate of 152, and had taken more than a wicket per match. To him, being picked was not as unexpected as it was for those on the outside.
Yet these were tough days. Playing domestic cricket in New Zealand is not enough financially, so Elliott doubled up as a business development manager. "I worked with a lot of women who didn't really know that much cricket. Some of the guys in the office would [recognise me and] come up and go, 'Well batted yesterday.' Girls didn't know what was going on. Next day they would go, 'I heard you did really well.'"
Other big decisions had to be made. "I gave up four-day cricket. I just played white-ball cricket. Long, long days, you know. Waking up at six, going to the gym, getting your fitness in before you go to work. Then go to training and back to work again. I enjoyed it."
"A week ago I was a blackcap, now I can't even afford shoes! Haha"
This is a joke from Neesham when he broke his jandals and had to walk barefoot. It's hard not to feel for him, hard not to see a twinge of disappointment even if he means the best for the team and Elliott. It makes for a fascinating relationship between these two professionals. They both want to do well, they both want to play the World Cup, and they also feel for each other. I ask Elliott what his relationship with Neesham is like.
"He is a team-mate that I played with in the past," Elliott says. "We have got such a good environment in this team. Everyone looks out for each other. Some days you are on the good side of a selection, other days you are on the poor side of a selection. Everybody felt for Jimmy. He was playing good cricket leading up to that. You look at someone like Matt Henry, feels like he is in the form of his life, but he is not here [at the World T20]. Works in roundabouts. The important thing in our team is, we show the compassion when there are guys left out."
Talking to Elliott, you get the sense that his experience was what got him his place in the World Cup. It was going to be team strategy to go hard at the top, both with the bat and the ball. They needed an anchor in the middle. Someone who could bowl five overs under pressure after the strike bowlers were bowled out fairly early. Someone who could bat out the innings after the big hitters were out early. Someone with a calm head under pressure. Someone who had done it before.
Champions Trophy semi-final, 2009
New Zealand are 71 for 3 chasing Pakistan's 233 on an unusually cracked Wanderers pitch. The ball is turning for Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal. It is reversing for Naved-ul-Hasan. Elliott walks in with a broken thumb. This is a thin batting line-up, with Daniel Vettori in at No. 6. Elliott absorbs all the pressure, and the pain, and takes New Zealand to the final.
"I think it is important that cricketers have that all-round approach to life. You can't rely on cricket alone. There is a bit of luck involved. You have got to be at the right place at the right time. Having back-up plans and having other interests is important."
Elliott never gets too high or too low on cricket. After the Champions Trophy heroics - an innings when he was "still proving myself as a player" - Elliott had to let the thumb heal. He had to miss the tour to the UAE, which gave Scott Styris a comeback, and boom, Elliott's next match for New Zealand came ten months later.
"It happened in my career a lot," Elliott says. "There was a lot of juggling around. I was called back in in 2013, I guess. I hadn't played in 18 months or two years, and then called back to play against South Africa, and we won that series. I batted at four. Ross was not there. Suddenly I played against England and batted at five. I almost made that No. 5 position my own. Then Brendon gave up the gloves and took up the No. 5 position. There was no place for me in the team with [Luke] Ronchi coming in, so I guess in a way I was then next batter in."
Then, of course, come Anderson and Neesham, and Elliott is forgotten again. There is a bit of luck involved.
Neesham now has a team that cares. Mike Sandle, the team manager, is known to be great in handling these issues. Mike Hesson, the coach, has forged a great relationship with the players. Tim Southee and Trent Boult, their two best quicks, are sitting out matches in the World T20 but also enjoying their time with the squad. Then there's Henry, who Elliott mentioned. Brendon McCullum was a great leader of men, and he has been followed seamlessly by Kane Williamson. When Elliott was picked and dropped and overlooked all those times, there was nobody calling him up and keeping him motivated.
"The culture has changed since," Elliott says. "The environment has changed. The guys care about each other a lot more. Maybe I was not a big member of the team as well. But I think we went through a lot of changes through those years. We went through five different coaches. Now we have got stability and the same coach over a number of years. Same support staff."
One of those five coaches was John Buchanan, who says in the middle of the 2015 World Cup, after New Zealand have beaten Australia in a league match: "There is a young bloke sitting on the sideline in [Tom] Latham, who possibly might add something to the side at the moment. They've got Elliott occupying that position, who, with the one ball [bowled off Mitchell Starc], you looked at him, you wondered why he was in the side."
You can't rely on cricket alone. There is a bit of luck involved. You can spend years qualifying to play for a country and then end up under a coach who doesn't quite see your utility. You can break your thumb when playing the innings of your life. You can get a leadership who give you a fresh lease of life when you are about to give up.
Elliott turned 37 today. He sounds like an old soul. He says he plays cricket because it reminds him of his childhood days. He doesn't need cricket to define him. Yet, or perhaps because of it, he plays well under pressure.
"At the end of the day, cricket is just a game," he says. "You are hitting a leather ball around the field. It's meant to be fun. The reason why you started playing it was because it was fun. You cannot lose sight of that core reason why you started playing. It is very easy for us professional cricketers to lose sight of that because of the pressures we are under, financial benefits and all that.
"For me, the worst-case scenario is: I don't play cricket, I go get a job and probably see my family a little more. It is not the be-all and end-all. You have to play like you don't care, but you have to care a lot.
"Cricket doesn't really define me as a person. I don't want to be defined as a cricketer. Just being a good, honest human being. Treating people the way people want to be treated. You are not going to be a cricketer your whole life. We have the opportunity as cricketers to make a name for ourselves, but then actually make a difference, by helping charities or using your name to be able to do some good stuff, as you have seen with guys like Steve Waugh."
You are not going to be a cricketer your whole life. Perhaps at the end of this World T20, where Elliott knows his role is to make an impact in 12 balls, both with the bat and the ball, he might stop being an international cricketer.
New Zealand are in India's group, which has meant playing on abrasive, turning pitches, where Elliott's cutters become important. New Zealand already have a foot in the semi-finals with two wins out of two, against India and Australia. "It would be awesome to finish your career on a real high," Elliott says. "If you don't believe you can win, you shouldn't be here anyway. I will still look to play T20 cricket around the world if I can. Try and mix that with work and some interests outside of the game."
The times of our lives
Through the 2015 World Cup, McCullum called it "the greatest time of our lives". For a long time now they have been preparing for this semi-final clash. They are going back to the site of the biggest heartbreak in New Zealand cricket history. They have known for long that they will be here if they do well in this World Cup. Somehow they have to play like they don't care, but have to care a lot. McCullum has written a letter asking companies to give their employees a day off. What has the team been thinking over the last three days? Over the last month and a half? Over the last year? Have they contemplated failure amid the greatest time of their lives?
The national anthem plays to a full Eden Park. Elliott looks up and sees his son singing it. The four-year-old likes to set his Lego men up as a cricket team and sing the national anthem when at home. Today he is at Eden Park, which is "pretty cool". It isn't quite as cool once the match starts. Ronchi drops a catch in the second over. Boult is slow off the mark, and another chance goes begging in the next over. There are nerves all around. Southee goes for 55 in his nine overs, Anderson for 72 in his six. AB de Villiers and the rest have brutalised attacks in the last ten overs of this World Cup, but rain arrives at the right time and keeps the target down to 298 in 43 overs.
New Zealand are off to a crazy start through McCullum's 59 off 26, but nervous batting and running follow. South Africa tighten the screws. The greatest time of their lives is fast coming to an end. Elliott walks in at 128 for 3. Grant "you wondered why he was in the side" Elliott. Who comes out to play because it reminds him of his childhood days. New Zealand slip to 149 for 4, and then, after a partnership with Anderson, two wickets fall in 14 balls. Still remind you of your childhood?
Elliott says all sorts of thoughts ran through his mind there. It was okay when he was starting out, chipping over cover for fun, taking calculated risks when playing pick-up shots to the leg side to keep the asking rate in check. Towards the end, though, he thinks he is the top scorer, a South African immigrant, at 78 not out. Picked ahead of an allrounder being groomed for a year. Bagged by a former coach in public. "If we hadn't won it, that would have hung with me for the rest of my life."
For a man who will be watching cartoons with his boys at six o'clock the next morning, this is a big admission of pressure. It has come down to five off two balls. Elliott is on strike. He and Vettori have decided they are not running a bye if Elliott misses. Elliott knows a tie is enough for his side to go through. He knows he is going to go after the next ball. He clears his mind and watches the ball. Easy as. "You are conditioned to do that as cricketers."
He rocks back expecting a yorker that he can get under, but Dale Steyn bowls length, and Elliott sends it flying over long-on. He knows he has nailed this, he knows it before anyone else in the world, but for a second, under the sharp Eden Park lights, he makes sure it's going over, and then raises his arms and roars.
"I was calm a little bit because I thought, if I don't do it, then maybe Tim Southee can come and do it. It was one of those things. There is a lot of luck in this game. We do practise hard for it, but you need a little luck."
Elliott consoles Steyn during his moment, during, perhaps, New Zealand's greatest moment. He acknowledges luck even in that last shot. There really should be a song written about this man. Ironically, Neesham has come the closest to writing one, on Twitter:
"Holy f*****g shitballs this is the best day of my life."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo