That shouldn’t have happened. It couldn’t have happened. It was never supposed to happen. But at the time of writing it has just finished happening, indisputably so, although the crowds of players and camera operators and officials wandering around on the Old Trafford turf have a half-stunned aspect that indicates they don’t understand that it happened either.
New Zealand will play in the World Cup final. India will not. A tournament that is all about one-day cricket had a match played over two days. The preview day for the second semi-final has been swallowed up by the first, and the post-match moments feel surreal. A raging favourite is gone. A new story has emerged.
The first part shouldn’t in theory be a huge surprise, given New Zealand made the last World Cup final too, and half a dozen semi-finals before that. Their perennial status as a “dark horse” in predictions has become more absurd while it has become more entrenched.
But in the previous edition Brendon McCullum was leading a side that followed his buccaneering approach, building up an almost comical momentum as they crashed through opposing teams with the speed of McCullum’s manic attacks on opposing bowlers.
This time the team is Kane Williamson’s. And following his careful and measured approach had led New Zealand to dig themselves carefully into a hole.
New Zealand’s Martin Guptill celebrates with teammates after taking the wicket of India’s MS Dhoni. (Reuters: Lee Smith)
Of course they started well, but they were eased into the tournament more than any other side. An out-of-sorts Sri Lanka, an overmatched Afghanistan, Bangladesh before the Tigers had their own momentum. Squeaking past a ropey South Africa and West Indies, with a free point for a washout against India.
At the business end of the group stage New Zealand tanked, turning out a pair of insipid run chases against Australia and England either side of allowing Pakistan to assemble a pursuit with no trouble at all.
India, meanwhile, had a formidable bowling line-up doing the business match after match, while Rohit Sharma made five hundreds in eight matches and Virat Kohli was long past due given he makes them more often than anyone in the game’s history.
This was the biggest semi-final mismatch since Kenya stunned the world to qualify in 2003. New Zealand had two top-line bowlers and one star batsman in Williamson, with the rest of a batting order struggling either with inexperience or form.
But those ingredients proved to be enough, with New Zealand scrapping their way to 239 on a very slow and stodgy pitch, then rain forcing India’s run chase onto the reserve day set aside for that purpose.
Williamson and Ross Taylor each made 67 on the first day, with Taylor struggling more with the conditions but battling through to remain not out by the time rain intervened. In the bizarre situation of having a night’s sleep before returning the next morning with 23 balls left to face, Taylor made 74 to help New Zealand to 239.
India’s bowlers had done their jobs, and that total shouldn’t have been enough. But as we’ve seen time and again in this World Cup, setting any total can create pressure, and the nature of knockout games means that one good performance can make all the difference.
Before this match, Kiwi fast bowler Matt Henry had taken three wickets in the tournament. Ten overs in, he had 3 for 13. Rohit, KL Rahul and Dinesh Karthik had given up catches, while his opening partner Trent Boult swung one into Kohli’s pads to trap him in front.
From a score of 4 for 24, any side will be up against it. The naturally attacking pair of Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya were caught in two minds, defending against Lockie Ferguson’s serious pace and Mitchell Santner’s left-arm spin when normally they would have been looking to score off both.
Eventually both were out trying big shots to force the pace, but had soaked up 118 balls between them for 64. The ask was already looking too much.
Then to turn an upset into an epic, in walked Ravindra Jadeja. The all-rounder with three triple hundreds in first-class cricket but who has never fully translated his ability onto the international stage.
The substitute who had fielded in eight matches in this World Cup before being allowed to play one. The player who had fired up at commentator Sanjay Manjrekar last week after being described as a “bits and pieces” cricketer.
He timed the ball like nobody else on the pitch had been able to do, skipping down to his sixth ball to launch Jimmy Neesham over long on. He ran like a demon, played the pull shot with exquisite violence, and hit sixes from spin, mediums, and Ferguson all the same.
Even as MS Dhoni at the other end put together an idiosyncratic innings typical of the late stage of his career, complete with leaving balls and patting them away as the overs ticked down, Jadeja made sure the required rate didn’t soar completely out of reach.
In the end though, with 32 needed from 14 balls, Jadeja had too much to do. Taking on Boult is fraught with risk, and the mistimed loft settled in Williamson’s hands. With him gone the chase fell away.
Henry was named the player of the match, but Jadeja was robbed. Exceptional bowling of 1 for 34 from 10 overs, a freakish direct hit to run out the main man Taylor, an equally brilliant catch next ball to get Tom Latham, and a catch the previous day off Williamson. Then his 77 from 59 balls — almost enough for what would have been one of India’s most famous victories.
Kohli may have been demonstrative when he was given out on the field, but he was calm and measured after the loss.
“They put up a great display how to bowl with the new ball. They had perfect line and lengths and forced us to make errors,” he said.
“That’s why they call this the knockouts. We have to accept that. We’re sad but we’re not devastated, because the kind of cricket we played in this tournament we know where we stood as a team.
“You work so hard, you get to number one on the table, and then 45 minutes of bad cricket and you’re out of the tournament.”
It was always a possibility. Any knockout can end with the unexpected. But as India makes preparations to go home, and New Zealand prepares to go to London, it’s still hard to believe.
Kohli can accept it but everyone else has to do the same. This was real. It happened.