On the last ball of the penultimate over, Kane Williamson sent a dab down the third man region that raced to the boundary. A shot he can probably play in his sleep. A shot that Kevin Pietersen said would have changed his career had he possessed it. With 12 needed off seven balls, it was the perfect shot for the moment, even if he only intended a single to keep strike.
But it was the shot he played the next time he was at the crease that sealed the deal. With uncharacteristic belligerence, he hit the first six of his innings. A proper heave going down on one knee to smash the ball.
A touch shot and a slog: the two diametrically opposites in nature, sum up Kane Williamson’s innings in the four-wicket win over South Africa at the World Cup.
A captain’s knock that successfully navigated a tricky chase on a sticky wicket while maintaining his classy shots. He came in to bat in the third over, played till the end, got a century after more than a year and finished unbeaten on 106 off 138 balls.
Williamson was the literal antithesis of South Africa as he continued his love affair with England pitches. (He crossed 1000 ODI runs in England at a stunning average of almost 75)
He kept his heads when wickets fell. He stayed calm even as Martin Guptill played 29 of the 30 balls at the end of the first Powerplay. He was cool when he survived a run-out and caught behind. He didn’t crumble under pressure.
And that was the difference between victory and defeat for New Zealand.
But he should never have been able to steer the innings till the last two overs. Batting on 76 in the 38th over, Williamson had knicked one behind in Imran Tahir’s last over. But wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock did not appeal even as the bowler did. South Africa had a DRS review but captain Faf du Plessis, fielding at long-on, was not even consulted.
Replays showed Williamson had indeed caught an edge. In a match filled with bizarre dismissals, this non-dismissal might be the most bizarre. The player of the match went scot-free as South Africa continued making strange errors in the field. David Miller practically recreated the 2015 miss from AB de Villiers when Williamson was on 77, catches were liberally spilled and nerves showed all around.
And that was the difference between victory and defeat for South Africa.
Best match of the World Cup
Despite the drama and error-strewn display from one side, this was the best match of the World Cup so far. It’s what we had been asking for – a match down to the wire between two team equally capable of the killer below.
Even before the rain-delayed match began, it was clear that it was going to be a crucial one.
New Zealand were unbeaten so far, but playing after a gap of 11 days after a rained-out game against India. South Africa had beaten only Afghanistan so far and had to win to ensure they stay in hunt for a semi-final spot.
The last time the two sides met in the men’s 50-over World Cup, it had produced an absolute epic: the semi-finals in 2015 that saw New Zealand knock South Africa out of the World Cup again. Incidentally, this was the first match of this World Cup to be played at Edgabston: the venue of South Africa’s infamous semi-final loss back in 1999.
Both captains said that was a long time ago, this was a fresh start. But as the match progressed, the strain told on du Plessis and Co and the mountain of mistakes turned out to be as heavy as the match-winning knock from the Black Caps captain.
It was not an easy track to bat. The wet outfield meant the batsmen had to negotiate with the pitch and not just use it as a launchpad to smash the ball. Chasing, the Kiwis crumbled from 72/1 to 80/4 within the first 20 overs.
Even a Martin Guptill struggled to get going, playing an oddly sedate knock of 38 off 59 before being hit wicket in the strangest fashion — almost a dance move that would not have been as comical as it seems now had his side lost. Already Colin Munro had fallen to an inside edge off his pad and then Ross Taylor and Tom Latham were snared by a rampaging Chris Morris.
But when his partners lost their wicket, the captain dropped anchor. Till he got a pirate at the other end in the form of Colin de Grandhomme.
If he was surgical patience and precision, the other side was the hammer. On a sticky wicket where batting was not easy, let alone striking the ball over the ropes, the all-rounder scored better than run-a-ball to take up the role expected from the Guptills and Taylors. The 91-run stand between the two contrasting bats drilled the final nail in the coffin for South Africa.
But in all honesty, they were helped by South Africa being… well, South Africa.
Like one can say about so many World Cup matches involving the Proteas, it could have almost been a different story if they had taken their chances.
Hashim Amla finally found some form after a patchy start to the tournament. The pace trio of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Chris Morris were solid with economy rates under five. Rassie van der Dussen injected fire with a 64-ball 67.
But the flipside was Amla plodded his way to his third slowest ODI fifty, Andile Phehlukwayo was smashed all over the park, de Kock and Aiden Markram were dismissed tamely.
The New Zealand bowling, on the other hand, produced their customary pieces of efficiency: The Lockie Ferguson Yorker to Faf du Plessis, Mitchell Santner’s dream spin delivery to Amla, Matt Henry’s back-to-back maidens in an extended opening spell.
In the end, New Zealand’s calm, more than their cricket, was the biggest weapon against an under-pressure South Africa. And thereby hangs a tale.