Grant Elliott helps Dale Steyn up after a highly emotional finish

A hand to the fallen: Elliott consoles Steyn at the end of the game

© Getty Images

20 Greatest ODIs: No. 4

Elation and despair duel in Auckland

For New Zealand, it was catharsis; for South Africa, the most bitter heartbreak

Andrew Fidel Fernando  |  

New Zealand vs South Africa, World Cup semi-final, Auckland, 2015

New Zealand won by four wickets

Dale Steyn talks to his captain, AB de Villiers, at the top of his mark and the cricket world has stopped.

Truth be told, it has not been a great World Cup. The two new balls have pantsed the death bowlers, stripping them of reverse swing. There have been many one-sided matches, some between Associates and established nations, but even several of the Full Members have been godawful (it was in this World Cup that England hit the lowest reaches of their white-ball trench, for example). It's been a rampage of otherworldly hitting, and - particularly when New Zealand have played - a fielding showcase. But tough contests? Man, have we been short of those.

But this one is going to be a colossal heartbreak either way, and the universe is bearing down on this moment. New Zealand need five runs from two balls, with Grant Elliott playing the innings of his life, on strike, and their most experienced player, Daniel Vettori, at the other end. While Steyn and de Villiers converse, Elliott and Vettori are mid-pitch, enraptured in their own exchange. "What will he bowl?" "Do we run a single?" "Target the short boundary, or play it as it comes?"

For South Africa, the moment is almost unbearable. In the quarter-final, they won their first ever knockout match in a World Cup, steamrolling Sri Lanka in Sydney. Has the curse ended?

Given all that has transpired between Edgbaston 1999 and this moment, the monkey on South Africa's back is now more like a supermassive black hole with the density of a thousand suns

Not from the evidence of the last hour. When New Zealand still needed 94, de Villiers (who is the best fielder on this, or any, ground) should have run Corey Anderson out easily at the non-striker's end. He fails to collect cleanly, breaks the bails without the ball in hand, and Anderson ambles home. On 33 at the time, Anderson goes on to add a vital 25 to his score.

In the third over from last, Quinton de Kock screws up a run out too. He is up to the stumps with his gloves, the throw coming in from the leg side, Elliott short of his crease after pushing for a second. De Kock closes his gloves too early. The ball dribbles away. Elliott keeps batting. Later that over de Villiers misses a direct hit from short midwicket that could have run-out Vettori at the non-striker's.

The most comical of the misses comes off the last ball of the penultimate over, when Elliott top-edges a pull towards deep backward square leg. Farhaan Behardien gets underneath it, then JP Duminy charges in, unaware, attempts to take the catch, and the two bowl each other over. If either had taken the catch, New Zealand would have gone into the last over with 14 required, and Vettori having to bat with a fresh-at-the-crease Matt Henry or Tim Southee. Instead, they need 12.

Steyn has the ball in hand, and because it has rained earlier (this is a 43-over game), it is damp. He knows what will be said if South Africa lose another tight World Cup knockout match. De Villiers knows too. So does Eden Park. Tens of millions watching from around the cricket world are all in on it.

There was once a monkey on South Africa's back. Given all that has transpired between Edgbaston 1999 and this moment, the monkey is now more like a supermassive black hole with the density of a thousand suns.

New Zealand take a lap of honour in a stadium that can't get enough of them

New Zealand take a lap of honour in a stadium that can't get enough of them © AFP

New Zealand's baggage is not nearly so profound, but there is nevertheless expectation. They have stormed through this World Cup unbeaten, their batters manic, their quicks searing, their catches spectacular, and even their chases to the boundary high-octane and unmissable. Three years after being their nation's laughing stock over a captaincy controversy, Brendon McCullum and Co have defibrillated the public's love for cricket, and during this tournament it has grown to full-throated adulation.

The atmosphere in the country has been electric for weeks, but this evening, at Eden Park, there are basically arcs of lightning cutting paths through the air. New Zealand are playing with their by-now-familiar intensity, but the fans, not bound by the graciousness that McCullum has asked his team to play with, have been frenzied and rambunctious. They've gloated when South African wickets fell, banged seats when boundaries came off New Zealand bats, jeered scornfully when run-outs were missed, and cackled derisively when those fielders collided and the catch went down.

Here in this moment, though, there is barely more than a murmur. They've been calling South Africa chokers all evening, but right now they've got something in their throats.

On the field, in this most pregnant of pauses between play, how many thoughts had to be running through how many minds? Elliott could, in another universe, be playing for South Africa. He was born in Johannesburg, grew up playing cricket there, and speaks still with one of South Africa's accents.

In the last World Cup it had been this very team that South Africa had wrecked their campaign against. On a muggy evening in Mirpur, a very different kind of New Zealand team had verbally attacked Faf du Plessis like a pack of hounds, after the batter had run-out de Villiers during a key passage in the match. Du Plessis perhaps feels he has made amends now; he has top-scored for his team with 82. And yet, here South Africa are again, on a knife edge.

In the end, Steyn and de Villiers settle on what they feel is a safe option for what turns out to be the last ball. But it only seems safe because of the history bearing down on their decision

Steyn and de Villiers are still figuring what ball to go with, and this ground isn't giving them much choice. Eden Park is essentially just an All Blacks fortress in which cricket must also be played. The square boundaries are short, so packing the off side and going wide of off stump, like you might do in many grounds in Australia, is dangerous. In fact, earlier in the over, Steyn bowled a wide-ish yorker against Vettori, and though the batter did not get an especially solid connection, he still managed a four just wide of deep third. Bouncers are equally risky - top edges tend to fly into the stands.

A yorker on the stumps has the highest chance of preventing a boundary, but the straight boundaries are even shorter than the square ones. From some of the stands above the sightscreen, you almost feel as if you could reach over and ruffle the bowler's hair. This strategy has the least margin for error of all. A low full toss might be drilled straight and tumble over the rope before the deep fielders can get to it. An overpitched delivery could easily disappear into the sightscreen off a mishit.

In the end bowler and captain settle on what they feel is a safe option. But it only seems safe because of the history bearing down on their decision. "Hard length," Steyn says to de Villiers. "I know I can execute that." Unless Steyn beats Elliott for pace, or finds some extra bounce from somewhere, it is a delivery a batter playing as well as Elliott can get under.

And so, of course, it happens. Steyn screams in from the 30-yard circle, pitches it wide of off, just barely back of a length. Elliott stays in his crease and launches it into the night over wide long-on. New Zealand win by four wickets with a ball to spare.

As Steyn doubles over mid-pitch, Eden Park erupts euphorically, a riot of adrenaline. Elliott and Vettori flail their bats in joy, but quickly go towards Steyn to console him. He his lying on his back now. Morne Morkel, the tallest man on the field, is at short fine leg, weeping openly.

For New Zealand, the unravelling of this supremely loaded moment has delivered catharsis; for South Africa it has delivered another colossal weight.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf