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Rain God Redux – The Protea Curse

by Venky

The Proteas need to desperately assuage the Rain God of their presumed innocence. The Maker of Storms seems to be nursing a wrath that is singularly peculiar, and unerringly directed towards a successive bunch of hard working and talented South African cricketers. If in the year 1992, the visage of McMillan morosely facing up to a delivery off which he needed to score a ‘mere’ 22 for his nation to progress beyond that England game, was a wretched dampener, the memorable mess-up with Arithmetic by an ebullient Shaun Pollock in 2003 was an absolute damp squib. To a Protea fan, the sight of Mark Boucher tamely patting down a Muttiah Muralidharan delivery, all the while blissfully unaware of his captain’s phenomenal blunder would have been enough to drive him into a fit of apoplexy.

On the 24th of March, 2015, Eden Park, Auckland contrived to wreak a havoc of merciless proportions on the hopes and aspirations of an entire continent. For, South Africa again came face-to-face with their meteorological nemesis and as is to be expected the heavenly power overcame a mortal resolve. Rampant Rain God Redux has ensured that, yet again the enigmatic team in green crash out of the quadrennial event in a smother of heroics and heart break. The pestilent rain chose to make an appearance in the most inopportune of moments. Just when the old firm of Faf Du Plessis and AB De Villiers were beginning to build a partnership of significant proportions after having weathered an initial human storm named Trent Boult, the skies poured forth and forced the teams into their respective dressing rooms. When nature finally relented, the number of overs was reduced to 43 as the incomprehensible firm of Duckworth & Lewis took over charting the course of the game.

Earlier in the day, far from the unfolding drama, South Africa won the toss and AB De Villiers had no hesitation in electing to bat. Soon the Africans were in trouble with Amla castled by Trent Boult and Quinton De Kock holing out to Tim Southee stationed at the off side boundary. De Kock’s innings could only be categorized as an inexplicable cross between Afridi without common sense and an Afridi bereft of sense. Du Plessis and Rossouw then initiated a salvage the situation operation, calmly nudging and pushing for singles and braces, while in between dispatching the odd one to the boundary.  The well set Rossouw fell for 39 when Martin Guptill, flying to his right plucked a one hander at backward point off the bowling of Corey Anderson. This bought the magical Devilliers to the crease and once the batting wonder settled down, runs began flowing in an aesthetic and easy vein. At the end of the 38th over, when things were beginning to brighten up for De Villier’s men, the brightness in the sky was replaced by a gloom of darkness which bought along with it the added malice of rain.

When play finally resumed, the game was shortened to 43 overs with South Africa’s final target to be adjusted upwards to correspond to the esoteric conditions of an obscure piece of algebraic farce. Soon Du Plessis got out for a well compiled 82 gloving Anderson down the leg side to Luke Ronchi. Enter David Miller. This powerful and well striking left hander played the most defining knock in the South African innings as he proceeded to cart the Kiwis all over the park. Sumptuous drives, smote sixes and searing mishits adorned his innings as Miller came within a hair’s breadth of recording the fastest fifty in a World Cup. He fell just a solitary run short when he edged Anderson behind the stumps for Ronchi to pouch the nick. But the damage had been done and at the end of the curtailed 43 overs South Africa had made a challenging 281/5, a total which was made even more daunting after the addition of 17 further runs as the D/L norm envisaged.

If at all there is a word or a phrase that is crying out to be legitimately eased into the lexicon of cricketing terms, it is “McCulled!” There are very few bowlers, plying their wares in the current day cricketing circuit whose very soul has not been scarred and morale culled by the rapier like blade of the marauding Kiwi Captain, Brendon McCullum. When New Zealand came out to bat in response to the seemingly unnerving total of 298, McCullum took charge and for a brief period of seven blitzkrieg overs, made the South African total look pityingly inadequate.

He flashed, flailed, flayed and flicked with aplomb in a display of astonishing batting rage. The South African bowlers in general and the intimidating Dale Steyn in particular came for some irreverent thrashing and irascible disdain as strokes flowed from McCullum’s willow in an unabated manner. Like the very Nile in vile torrent, he charged Steyn, flat batted him and also for good measure, hoicking, heaving and hooking him out of the ground. Steyn’s third and South Africa’s fifth over went for a whopping 25 runs and within the blink of an eye the Big McC had notched up a blazing fifty of a meagre 22 balls. However with the score at 71, McCullum played one shot too many, swinging Morne Morkel to Steyn at mid-on. Some reprieve that for the ‘Steyn’ Remover!

Morkel struck another resounding blow when he scalped the prolific Kane Williamson who in horrific anguish saw the ball careen off a bottom edge and disturb the bails. The African dream was beginning to revive as sagging shoulders straightened and drooping heads were back to being held high. With Imran Tahir sticking to his consistently nagging length, De Villiers was able to rotate his hapless fast bowlers who had earlier been plundered by McCullum. Ross Taylor partnered the double centurion of the previous match, Martin Guptill in a steady accumulation of runs. Disaster struck in the very first ball of the 18th over; when with the score at 128, Ross Taylor lamely pushed a ball towards backward point and went tearing down the track. The brave Guptill responded, but to no avail and the latter fell comfortably short of his ground as De Kock whipped the bails off after cleanly collecting an Amla return. With three in form batsmen back in the hutch, South Africa’s hopes acquired a pair of wings, but they were not just yet ready to soar.

A sedate looking Grant Elliott came striding to the crease to join a visibly shaken Ross Taylor. With the addition of a mere 21 runs, Taylor compounded the combined misery of his team by nicking one down the leg side to an ecstatic J.P.Duminy. The Kiwi track record of having never progressed past the semifinal now looked a little less likely to be threatened. But Corey Anderson seemed to think otherwise. The burly south paw ably assisted Grant Elliott and the duo played with confidence and conviction. A couple of rank long hops and half volleys did nothing to harm their endeavours as the batsmen gleefully put away the bad balls to and over the boundary. A portentous omen reared its ugly head when with South Africa desperate for a wicket and the scoreboard showing 203/4, a golden opportunity arose. An ill judged attempt at a single resulted in Elliott shooing back Anderson to the non-striker’s end. With the scurrying Anderson light years away from regaining his crease, AB De Villiers collected a flat throw and attempted to dislodge the bails. However instead of using the ball, he ended up with his hands disturbing the bails. In a vain exhibition of acrobats gone awry, De Villiers somersaulted plucked the ball and tried to uproot the stumps. The act turned to be an exercise in futility and Anderson made his ground, a relieved man.

Just when things seemed to be at a point of no return for De Villier’s men, the irrepressible Morkel provided the breakthrough yet again snaring Anderson, but not before the latter had made an invaluable 58. New Zealand 252/5.  46 needed off 30.

Luke Ronchi soon followed Anderson by flicking a Steyn delivery down the legside to Rossouw. It was at this juncture that things started falling apart for South Africa. A seemingly rejuvenated unit for inexplicable reasons metamorphosed into a ragged, dazed and confused bunch of pitiable junkies. Elliott coming back for a second was given an unexpected reprieve wen De Kock failed to collect the ball from Rossouw. This would be the first of a miraculous stream of lives for Grant Elliott.

Vettori backing up too far was lucky as a De Villiers shy at his stumps missed much to the chagrin of the South Africans. 23 now required with 18 legitimate deliveries left. The tension both on and off the pitch was becoming quite palpable now. To the second ball of the 41st over, Elliott mistimed a pull shot and the ball soared toward the very skies. Two fielders in the mid-wicket region engaged in a mad scramble to scoop the catch, but the ball landed smack in between the two competing fielders. 20 to win from 10 and it was anybody’s game yet, but with Elliott as the indispensable factor.

After stroking a rasping shot through extra cover for a boundary, Elliott was the beneficiary of yet another display of magnanimity from his opponents. Elliott again skied the last ball of the 42nd over, high into the night sky, courtesy an ill executed pull off – whom else, Morne Morkel! An expectant Berhadien positioned himself perfectly well under the catch only to be knocked over by a tackle from J.P.Duminy who running in from fine leg had gone for the same catch. In the ensuing melee, Elliott and Vettori ran a couple, but not before standing in the middle of the pitch contemplating the trajectory of the swooping ball. This move cost the Kiwis a precious single. At the end of the 42nd over, with 6 deliveries left, New Zealand needed 12 runs.

The final over of this seminal game was entrusted to the indomitable Dale Steyn. This was an opportunity to relegate to the confines of a forgotten and lurid history, all the sullying of his bowling and to forever remove the stain of ‘chokers’ preternaturally attached to his team. It was the time to exorcise the ghost of Brendon McCullum. Grant Elliott and Daniel Vettori also had their own motives. An unflinching objective of obliterating, six previous disappointments. New Zealand was the new King Robert Bruce and this time they did not need a spider toying with its cobweb to derive inspiration. It was time to exorcise a spectre called the semi-final ghost.

Vettori scampered a bye off the first ball of Steyn’s over to put Elliott back on strike. 11 to win off 5;

Elliott banged a full toss to cover, albeit for just a single off Steyn’s second. 10 to get off 4;

10 off 4 soon became 6 off 3 when Vettori squirted attempted Yorker just inches past a desperately diving Morne Morkel for a boundary in the third man area;

The circus of lives was completed when an attempted bye provided a glimmer of opportunity for running out batsmen at either end. But as fate would have it, both De Kock and Steyn missed at either end, but not before taking clumsy swipes at the wicket. 5 off 2 and this could even end up in a tie!

The hopes of two nations were cleaved right down the middle when the fifth ball of the 43rd over was heaved over long on by the unrelenting Grant Elliott for a huge six! As 45,000 delirious fans, rose to their feet swept away by enthusiasm and exhaustion to cheer their hero in unison, the brave South Africans slumped to the ground demoralized, devastated and disgusted.

As just a single game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground stands between New Zealand and their pinnacle of cricketing achievements, De Villiers and his men head home, but with their heads held high. Maybe South Africa have a genuine cause to believe that on account of a certain inexplicable contrivance whether attributable to nature or Providence, they are destined or rather chosen to remain the Children Of A Lesser God!

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