The fans wholeheartedly lapped up Brendon McCullum's mantra:

In 2015, New Zealand may have missed out on the trophy, but they were heroes at home nevertheless

© Getty Images

The Antipodean World Cups: South Africa's twin heartbreaks, New Zealand's homecoming

A look back at favourite World Cups: two remarkable but wildly different tournaments, 23 years apart, in Australia

Mark Nicholas  |  

Cricket comes in many guises. One is not necessarily better than the other but each will appeal to different people for different reasons than the other. For example, I most like the game's aesthetic qualities, which is not to say that the drama or power do not excite. Also, I prefer straight lines to extravagant flourish; easy bowling actions to mighty effort. Cricket is about patience every bit as much as it is about momentum. It is not a thrilling game all the time; it is essentially a situation game and the various situations create all kinds of different excitement. Cricket is a game of contrasts and, in summary, can be as brutal as it is balletic. That, in itself, is fascinating.

The two World Cups that have been played in Australia go some way to illustrating these different attractions. In 1992, the Australia coach and former opening batter Bob Simpson used simple data to drive a simple strategy. Up until then, said Simpson, the team that scored the most singles in one-day matches won the most games, so the Australians ran hard. As it happened, the tactic didn't take his team out of the group stage, but that didn't necessarily prove it wrong. Or did it?

Times changed. In 2015, AB de Villiers hit 43 fours and 21 sixes in seven innings striking at 144.3; Martin Guptill hit 59 and 16 in nine innings. Chris Gayle hit ten fours and 16 sixes in one innings, for goodness' sake, against Zimbabwe in Canberra. In all, that day he made 215 in 147 balls. But it was not the highest individual score. Guptill made 237 in 167 balls against West Indies. Back then, it beggared belief. The game was on speed.

Those three batters were among the first to see into the future we now know as the norm: 50-over cricket has become an extension of 20-over cricket. Ambition in the batting has reached stratospheric levels and seems to be motivated by an increasing lack of fear of the outcome. This has made bowlers look closely at their options, develop new skills, and occasionally, to accept the inevitable with a calm exterior. When not so long ago it was a maiden over that took pride of place, it is now the dot ball. The best bowlers today have the strongest minds. There is nowhere to hide.

The two double-centurions of the 2015 World Cup, Guptill and Gayle, smashed records and showed how much the ODI mindset had changed

The two double-centurions of the 2015 World Cup, Guptill and Gayle, smashed records and showed how much the ODI mindset had changed © ICC

The 2015 World Cup really felt like another world, one in which power joined with beauty to produce for close finishes. Mainly, the batters were fearless, but the bowlers won our hearts and the most games - Mitchell Starc and Trent Boult; Imran Tahir, Ashwin and Jadeja. Much of the cricket was electric, almost life-affirming. We will come to why in a moment. But first, back to 1992.

In the round-robin stage of that tournament, England bowled out Pakistan for 74 and were rudely interrupted in their simple chase for victory by the weather. The match was abandoned and Pakistan scraped into the knockout stage by virtue of this single point. England were grumpy about that, though not as grumpy as when the two teams met again in the final and Derek Pringle trapped Javed Miandad in front of all three, only to see the umpire turn down his appeal. Javed, batting at No. 4, then rebuilt Pakistan's horrible start to the innings with his captain, Imran Khan, who had come in at first drop. One imagines this was a preset plan, though the idea of Imran padded up in case Ramiz Raja and Aamer Sohail failed amuses me. Arjuna Ranatunga did a similar thing with Roshan Mahanama in 1996, using him to put out fires, except they rarely happened. But Imran a floater? Imran lit fires, he didn't put them out.

Anyway, he and Javed put on 139, the foundation of something to play with, and play they did, like "cornered tigers" says the cliché. In pursuit of 250 to win a World Cup for the first time Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart, Graeme Hick, Neil Fairbrother and Dermot Reeve were knocked over by Aaqib Javed and Mushtaq Ahmed. Wasim Akram did the rest, in some style. Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis were cleaned up by two of the greatest balls ever bowled, after Imran urged his tyro to forget about a no-ball problem and focus exclusively on the magic of speed and swing.

What I most remember is that it felt ordained, as if the signature moment of Imran's career was meant to be. Mind you, some of the players by their captain's side throughout found the attention he received a little tiresome. You know, the building of the cancer hospital in his mother's name and the return home to a triumph as if he were a Caesar returning to Rome. They should not begrudge him. Without Imran, there was no triumph at all.

For Imran's tigers, the 1992 World Cup win seemed written in the moon and stars

For Imran's tigers, the 1992 World Cup win seemed written in the moon and stars © PA Photos

The losing semi-finalists that year were New Zealand and South Africa. Twenty-three years on, the same two went head to head in Auckland for a place in the final against Australia. It was, by any standards, an epic, and one of which folk will long say, "I was there". But like 1992 - when a rogue calculation forced by a rain delay left them needing 22 from a single ball - it was sad game for South Africans.

Apparently forced by the governing body's affirmative-action policy to play an unfit Vernon Philander, the captain, de Villiers, was left with a bad taste in his mouth. The rest of the players just shrugged, knowing full well that the in-form Kyle Abbott was a bad miss from the template that had brought them success throughout the tournament.

South Africa batted first at Eden Park, the quirky rugby ground that had already seen a couple of eye-watering contests in the tournament, and made plenty - 281 to be precise - but the feeling lingered that a rain delay, which reduced the innings by seven overs, stalled Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers in full attack-dog mode.

Brendon McCullum began the chase by launching Dale Steyn over cover for six and then taking Philander for 18 off his first over. He waited for Steyn's third over for the touchdown moment, scorching him for 25 and passing 50 in 22 balls while he was at it. The euphoric local crowd, more used to seeing the All Blacks lay waste to all comers in this stadium, were beside themselves. Whose dog was barking now?

The Proteas knuckled down; the Black Caps kept coming. After McCullum and Kane Williamson fell, Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill rebuilt until one ran out the other and, in the blink of an eye, the game hung by a thread. Forty-six runs to get off 30 balls became 29 off 18, became 12 off the last six, became five off two. Dan Vettori was at the wicket with Grant Elliott, who was unbeaten on 74. Grant who? A modest fellow, Elliott, was about to bring down the men who represented the country of his birth, and how often have we said that about repatriated South African cricketers.

For kin and country: Steyn and Elliot, two former countrymen found themselves at different ends of a result

For kin and country: Steyn and Elliot, two former countrymen found themselves at different ends of a result © Getty Images

Amidst incredible tension, Steyn was now hobbling, his calf - or was it hamstring? - suddenly rebelling against the years of demand. Someone pushed the pause button, out came treatment. We held our breath. Steyn grimaced and stretched and made his way back to his mark. De Villiers stood with him, a plan was made. Steyn pawed at the ground and roared in. The ball was back of a length and Elliott smoked it high over mid-on and into the crowd. And just like that, it was over. At the seventh time of asking, New Zealand had won a World Cup semi-final. Passionate, disbelieving, joyous, the crowd simply took off.

The South African players collapsed to their knees in shock; New Zealand, the opposite. This moment should have come in '92, under Martin Crowe, but destiny betrayed the one we called Hogan, after the man who won the Open at Carnoustie in 1953 and whose detailed approach to the golf swing had long been a model for Crowe's analytical approach to batting. As a kid, Crowe loved the show Hogan's Heroes, and at the moment of Elliott's winning blow, 11 Kiwi cricketers were heroes to the nation in a way that no New Zealand cricketer had been before.

The final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground - an anticlimax - was about one ball, the third faced by McCullum at the start of the match, after he had won the toss and chosen to bat. After a couple of missed macho swishes at Starc, he got the Exocet, the one Starc pitches full and that swings late before invariably shattering everything in its path, which is usually the stumps. McCullum's extravagant drive was no match for it, and coming as it did, in the first over, well, there had never been a noise like it on a cricket ground. It was as if all 93,000 at once roared visceral approval, and probably they did, because for that split-second, even a Kiwi might have been coerced by the sight and sound of such drama.

Michael Clarke saw Australia home with the most delightful of innings. This was beauty not beast: back-foot- and front-foot play, easing boundaries into gaps with side-on strokes and god-given timing. Australia were the best team and Starc far and away the best bowler. In eight innings he took 22 wickets at 10 each with an economy of 3.5 per over and at a strike rate of 17.4. You would hope he would be Player of the Tournament, and he was. For tactical acumen, Clarke pipped McCullum in the captaincy stakes. For emotional resonance and devil-may-care thinking, McCullum pipped everyone who pulled on a shirt.

England won just two of their six games at the 2015 World Cup, and Bangladesh knocked them out of the tournament in Adelaide

England won just two of their six games at the 2015 World Cup, and Bangladesh knocked them out of the tournament in Adelaide Saeed Khan / © AFP/Getty Images

A year and a bit earlier, Phillip Hughes had died. McCullum's response to that dreadful day was to rethink the way his team went about the game. He wanted nothing of the boorishness and dishonesty that had seeped into the international space, only friendship and a greater appreciation of cricket's unique appeal. His speech at the 2016 MCC Cowdrey Lecture in London was a lesson in life.

This was the tournament in which England were bowled out for 123 by Tim Southee and then conceded those runs in fewer than 13 overs. Soon after, Bangladesh rather brilliantly beat England in a showdown match at Adelaide Oval. In fact, England fell so far from grace that month that Andrew Strauss, in a suit, spent the chilly English spring orchestrating a complete overhaul of their white-ball cricket.

No one who saw it will forget Wahab Riaz's furiously fast assault on Shane Watson in the countries' quarter-final clash at the Adelaide Oval. Pakistan had already played India in Adelaide - an event that felt as if urban sprawl had invaded your grandparents' country garden for the day - and lost that one too. By the way, if you love the game and haven't been there live for an India-Pakistan match, you really should.

It was the tournament when Kumar Sangakkara made four consecutive hundreds and then, along with his buddy Mahela Jayawardene, announced his retirement from international cricket after Sri Lanka's quarter-final defeat at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Joined at the hip, those guys. What a legacy they left.

Martin Crowe left his imprint on Brendon McCullum's New Zealand, a kinder, gentler side than before

Martin Crowe left his imprint on Brendon McCullum's New Zealand, a kinder, gentler side than before © AFP

I touched on Imran's legacy a little earlier and had hoped McCullum might finish on the podium holding aloft the Cup in the way that other standard-bearers had done previously. Clive Lloyd started it all with his magnificent hundred and the Viv Richards run outs in 1975. Kapil Dev broke the West Indian spell in 1983. Allan Border won on the seemingly impossible to win subcontinent in 1987. Imran transformed lives with his gift to the nation. In 1996, Arjuna Ranatunga opened the game's eyes to possibilities beyond dreams. MS Dhoni played perhaps the greatest innings in 2011, though Aravinda de Silva in '96 and Ben Stokes in 2019 ran with him to the tape. Australia have won three times since Border by playing comfortably the best cricket. If only McCullum was on the list. The fact is that when Strauss began his fix-up, he was nicking most of it from the man who now coaches the England Test team.

It's with New Zealand that I finish the last of these three reflections on World Cups won and lost, and more specifically, with Crowe. It was only by a whisker that Pakistan earned their place in the 1992 final after Crowe left the field with a hamstring problem and handed the captaincy to John Wright. It didn't go well. The 22-year-old Inzamam-ul-Haq, in harness with the remarkable Miandad, played his way past the New Zealand attack and into the final with an over to spare. Crowe had made 91 in 83 balls before being run-out by that hamstring. Thus, he was denied the hundred his talent warranted and the final his career, and the lateral thinking that drove it, so deserved.

The 2015 final was the last time I saw him in good health - relatively that is. There is a wonderful picture of him stylishly dressed and deep in thought on the outfield of the MCG as the evening shadows begin to fall across the grass.

Later we drank a little wine and talked of the days, weeks, months and years past. He had written a fine piece for ESPNcricinfo about the urgent need for a kinder, gentler game and had seen it in McCullum's team. We lived on opposite sides of the world and time together was precious. Within a year he had passed on, a life lost too young. That night, I think he knew.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator