'The 2015 World Cup semi-final made me realise that sport can change a nation'

Former New Zealand allrounder Grant Elliott looks back at the biggest moment of his career

Former New Zealand allrounder Grant Elliott is best remembered for the six he hit to take New Zealand into the 2015 World Cup final. He talks about the thrilling semi-final against South Africa in Auckland, that New Zealand squad, and how his perspective on the game changed over time.
You're making your way out to the middle with the World Cup semi-final on the line. What's going through your head?
I went into the game in a pretty good headspace. There was a lot of stuff that had been happening outside of cricket. Sometimes we think that cricket is the most important thing in the world, but for me it wasn't really the be-all and end-all. I went into that game thinking, 'I really want to enjoy this moment.'
The enjoyment and the ability to be calm under pressure was something I really wanted to pride myself in towards the latter part of my career. I think when I started my career, anxiety, expectation and fear of failure probably overwhelmed me a bit. But towards the back end, I really got to express myself because I wasn't worried about what people thought and the outcome.
And Brendon [McCullum] created such an awesome platform for us by getting some quick runs that we didn't have to do anything silly at that stage. It was just about turning over the scoreboard and making sure we batted as deep as possible.
How did you overcome your anxiety?
I was going through some family stuff at that stage, which was quite tough. That's when you realise there's more to life than just cricket. Family and other things are a lot more important than hitting a leather ball around in the field. And the funny thing was, I went in with that mentality and I realised that sport actually can change a nation in a way and bring it closer together. The semi-final in New Zealand definitely did that. The nation really did pull together, and that patriotism and that pride of living in your country definitely comes up when sporting moments like that happen.
I'd felt pretty good the whole way through the World Cup. I hadn't set the world alight but I had a really good series against Sri Lanka [before]. I had that world-record partnership with Luke Ronchi, and I got a 40 and a couple of 30s in the World Cup and I was feeling good.
And on that day, as I said, you play your best when you don't think. When it's just: see the ball, hit the ball. I had the mindset that I just wanted to enjoy this and I thought of it as a great challenge. That's why we play the game.
I was probably nearing the end of my career and to be able to play in a World Cup semi-final - that's the pinnacle of your career, and to make a difference in those games… I always thought big players step up in big games and I wanted to be one of those guys that stepped up for the team.
You said experience detaches you from anxiety. What kind of experience helps?
Just failing. Cricket is a game of failure. You look at batsmen - they are going to fail 66% of the time even if they're one of the best in the world. If you fail that many times, you learn to be a resilient person. There's nothing quite like failing on a world stage with high-definition cameras in your face. You have to be quite resilient and put things in perspective. Without perspective, resilience and a consistent mindset, it makes it a very difficult game.
I think family, friends, and certainly team-mates - those support structures are important. Cricket becomes a tough game when you play as an individual and only care about yourself. That's something Brendon and the senior players really did instil - the character that we had in our team. It is one of the most important things to be a team player and do everything you can to get the team over the line.
It's the last ball. Dale Steyn's running in. What are you thinking?
Well, a couple of thoughts went through my head. One was: if I hit this for six, I'm not gonna make my sister's wedding. She had booked her wedding date on the World Cup final. She'd asked me before the World Cup, "I have this date, what do you think of it?" And I said, "Well, I've been told I'm a replacement player for the World Cup only in case of injury. And also, New Zealand have never played a World Cup final, so the odds are probably stacked in your favour." That went through my mind.
The other thing that went through my mind: I never had good press throughout my career and I didn't want to be the person that was stuck at the end being not out and not having won the game without trying. That was the first time in the innings I felt the old fear and the anxiety that overwhelms you as a player. But I guess the ability to be able to take that out of your mindset and just look at it as a great opportunity was down to experience and a long career of probably failing a lot and learning.
Were there any specific areas that you were looking at to hit the ball?
Dale had mid-off and mid-on up, so I knew it was either short or back of a length or the yorker. I just thought, we've got two balls to do it and if I hit it for four, we go through because we were top of the table, and if I hit it for six, we win. I was the guy at 70-odd not out, so the responsibility was with me to try and finish the game
Did you know that it had gone for six when it left your bat?
Didn't, really. It hit a little bit high up on the bat. But as I hit it and as it got up above the lights, I could see that it was going [for a six]. The elation - throwing my arms up in the air - was probably more relief than victory. Being in a pressure situation like that and coming out the end of it was a huge relief. You can feel a little bit burdened with that opportunity of winning the game because there's so much pressure and you don't want to let anyone down. I was always someone who never wanted to let my team-mates down, and played for my team-mates and my country. To do that and see the faces of the crowd and your team-mates and the happiness that it brought to everyone was a very special moment.
Tell us about the Elliot-Steyn embrace.
I can't really remember what I said to him. Would have been along the lines of "Hard luck, well played." I'd lived in South Africa, so I'd gone through the heartache of World Cups. I'd lived through all that before I emigrated to New Zealand. I knew that they were hurting.
And you know, in sport everyone plays to win. You're all sort of gladiators in a coliseum. But once the game's done, there's nothing you can do about it, right? That's when you take the stance of being humble in victory, humble in defeat, and you respect your opposition and you respect the fact that they are hurting. When you're in the change room, you can go wild and celebrate it madly with your team-mates, but in the face of the opposition, you need to respect them and we obviously respect the South Africans. We respect Dale Steyn. On another day, Dale wins that game, you know. It's a game of luck.
You were back on dad duties the next day at 6am?
I didn't get much sleep. I sort of got to bed at four, woke up at six, did an interview and just spent time with the family. When I woke up, I had the Man-of-the-Match award next to the bed and my son went, "Oh Dad, did you win the World Cup?" I was like, "No, no, but we're in the final." He used to put his Lego men up in a row, put the trophy there and sing the anthem, which was quite cool.
At this point, had you taken in the fact that you had put New Zealand in the World Cup final?
We were in a team where it wasn't about the individuals. Brendon was pretty big on it and he didn't want anyone to have an ego. It wasn't just my hit that got New Zealand there. Brendon's fifty, Ross [Taylor's], Corey [Anderson's], Dan's [Vettori] innings at the end there. All of those moments made our World Cup special. There weren't any standout players; everyone contributed in some sort of way.
New Zealand is a rugby-mad country, but at the World Cup, it became a cricket-loving nation. How did that help the team?
When we beat Australia and Kane [Williamson] hit that winning six, I really felt a shift in the New Zealand public. They almost shifted from, "This is cool, we're having a World Cup in our country" to "Hey, we might actually be able to win this thing." I think everyone knew we had a good team, but when we beat Australia, it was like, "Yeah, we've actually got a good team here."
We had [Trent] Boult, who was firing, [Tim] Southee was bowling well, [Martin] Guptill was smoking it, Baz [McCullum] was obviously on fire every innings. We had an all-round team. We had Vettori as the spinner, [Adam] Milne was the guy striking behind Southee and Boult. We felt we had match-winners all the way down to No. 7 with the bat. It was a really, really solid team and there was a lot preparation going into that team.
In that game against Australia, Mitchell Starc, bowling at 150kph after a rain break at Eden Park, bowled you for a first-ball duck.
I reckon that's the best ball I've ever been bowled. A lot of times you get out, you reflect and you know what you need to work on. I was walking off, saying, "Yeah, that was too good for me." It was 150kph and I wasn't sure if it would swing or not. I went into that game thinking Starc doesn't swing it much, but he swung it late and at 150kph. I learnt from that game, adjusted my technique slightly for the final, and thought I played him quite well.
Given that you were mostly on the fringes for a long time, did you ever have doubts about continuing in cricket at any point?
Yeah, I could have easily packed it up about four, five times in my career. I don't know why I kept going. There was something inside me that didn't want to give up. It's something that can't really be described. You wake up and you want to be the best cricketer you can possibly be. I mean, I loved the sport at a young age, but a lot of drive in my career - rightly or wrongly - was to prove a lot of people wrong. The fact that people doubted me made me even hungrier to succeed.
Back when you were a kid, did you ever dream of hitting a six in a World Cup?
I just wanted to wear the coloured clothing and play white-ball cricket. I just wanted to represent the country.
There's actually a flaw in that, in setting goals. You should actually set up to be one of the best players in the world. That's how it should be. When I encourage youngsters now, I say, "Dream big." If you don't make one of the ten best batters in the world, you might make the top 30 and you're going to be a bloody success, so you may as well aim high.
You spoke about McCullum's influence. Do you remember how the "time of your lives" idea came about?
Brendon just kept telling us, "You have to play the game, find out the reasons why you first started. This is the best time of your life and you should enjoy it. You should enjoy playing the game." I guess we had that conversation a lot as a team.
When you start thinking about it, you think, "What did cricket feel like when I first started playing?" Because there's those things that cloud your judgement. You start thinking about monetary benefits and individual benefits that come with professional sport, and it's not about that. It's about playing for the guy next to you and playing for your country.
Looking back on that World Cup campaign, how does it feel now?
Yeah, cricket was the time of my life. I wanted to succeed and I'm lucky that I finished it on a high. Not everyone gets to, and I feel like I got out on my own terms in a way.
I believe it's up to every professional cricketer to use the platform that cricket gives them to go and make a difference in something else in life. That's the next page - encouraging young kids or adults to live their dreams and live their goals. I'm trying to promote cricket at grass-roots level and it's pretty cool. It's a nice change. There's no job better than cricket. You can't play forever, right? You have to do something else at one point.
How's life after retirement?
I work at this place called CricHQ. We are probably the largest digital cricket-scoring platform in the world. We've got over 50 countries that use us and now we've combined the streaming element to the scoring element of cricket, so you can actually watch live-streamed grass-roots games. The cool thing is grandparents in another country [can] watch their grandchild play their first ever game of cricket, hit their first six, or get their first hat-trick, and for the player, all of the clips are indexed and kept forever.
We've also got coaching analysis, small-broadcast solutions. Surrey cricket is one of our partners. We had over a million views for Pakistan v Northants and over 890,000 views for Scotland v Afghanistan.
Do you get into the coaching side of things?
I still do a little bit of coaching, just to stay in the game. I do a little bit of work for Sky - post-game reviews and commentary, just to stay involved in the game and stay relevant.
There's a few players in New Zealand that I'll mentor and help through their career. I'd prefer to keep it confidential. There are some women players as well, helping them out with contracts and endorsements. Not paid work - just to help them, really.
It's not easy. I don't think the transition from cricket into the corporate life is easy because you don't really know what it is that you like, so it's important to try a lot of different things. Being in a start-up sports-tech kind of company is really great because there's a lot of pressure and change and you have to adapt to it. Cricket's like that. Every game's different. Every ball's different and you have to cope with the pressure and anxiety of it and you have to adapt to the changing environment all the time. I do get a good kick out of what I do at the moment and I love coming to work.

Alagappan and Deivarayan Muthu are sub-editors at ESPNcricinfo