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Grant Elliott: When journeyman became Superman

by Taha Hashim 10 minute read

Grant Elliott talks to Taha Hashim about New Zealand’s historic run to the final of the 2015 Cricket World Cup and his famous semi-final performance against South Africa.

“I get people talking to me on a daily basis about what they were doing during that time and how amazing that moment was for them. To give people that kind of happiness and that elation is pretty special.”

Five runs needed from two. To win. To make the final of the World Cup. Eden Park is bubbling, ready to explode. History or heartbreak awaits New Zealand. Can the country of the All Blacks become the nation of the Black Caps?

Dale Steyn, the finest fast bowler of his generation, has the ball. South Africa’s great paceman hasn’t had the greatest of evenings, though. His 8.4 overs have gone for 70, his figures having taken an early slashing from the fearless blade of Brendon McCullum.

Grant Elliott is playing the innings of his life – one big hit awaits

But McCullum has been back in the sheds for some time now. The hero of the quarter-final, slayer of the West Indies, Martin Guptill, isn’t present either. Neither is the heir to the throne, Kane Williamson. Ross Taylor and Corey Anderson have come and gone. All that’s left is a possessed Grant Elliott, a man playing the innings of his life. Grant Elliott, who was born and raised in South Africa. Grant Elliott, who left for New Zealand in 2001 after a contract dispute with Gauteng. Grant Elliott who has been picked and dropped, picked and dropped. Grant Elliott, whose Test career lasted five matches. Well, that Grant Elliott is unbeaten on 78 from 72 balls.

He really shouldn’t be here. In fact, there’s one thought that crosses his mind as he waits for Steyn to begin his run-up, with the possibility of cricketing immortality on the horizon.

“I’m not going to my sister’s wedding.”

***

Australia lifted the crown in 2015, but spiritually this was New Zealand’s tournament. Led by the brazen McCullum, it was the Kiwis who tugged at the heartstrings; their desire for aggression was matched only by their need to be sporting and respectful to their opposition at every given opportunity.

Elliott was, very nearly, not a part of it all. Months before the tournament, he was informed by New Zealand’s selectors that he wasn’t going to be included in the squad – he was going to be a reserve. But a failed experiment with Jimmy Neesham at the top of the order in a series with South Africa in October 2014 opened the door for Elliott, who hadn’t played for the side since 2013.

Elliott (c) with Tim Southee (l) and Trent Boult (r) at the announcement of New Zealand’s World Cup squad, Jan 2015

“Brendon [McCullum] moved to open and they were looking for someone in the middle order,” he tells wisden.com. “And the fact that I bowled a bit went in my credit.”

In January, Elliott was named in New Zealand’s squad for the tournament, and proved his worth almost immediately, hitting his second ODI hundred in a series against Sri Lanka. Some success with the ball against Pakistan ensured he arrived at the tournament in decent touch.

From the outset, McCullum’s men sparkled. In Christchurch, Sri Lanka were defeated by 98 runs after a blitzing batting performance saw New Zealand rack up 331. McCullum, with a 49-ball 65, set the tone for his side’s style of play, launching his first ball of the tournament for four.

The fact that Elliott can recall that moment is telling. “He hit Kulasekara over extra cover for a one-bounce four. It was like, ‘Wow, New Zealand are here to take this competition on’.” The child-like freedom of New Zealand’s cricket only became more apparent as the tournament progressed.

Southee celebrates the dismissal of Ian Bell – he went on to take 7-33 from nine overs

Against England came a true show of strength. A seven-wicket haul from Tim Southee was reduced to a footnote as McCullum brandished his bat once more, unfurling a 25-ball 77 and bringing a swift end to a contest that lasted just 45.4 overs in all.

And yet, it wasn’t till New Zealand’s victory against Australia that Elliott feels the switch flicked.

“That game, the whole of New Zealand got behind us. They believed we could win the World Cup after beating Australia at home. It was the pivotal moment where we got the support behind us.”

Following on from Southee’s swing exhibition against England, Trent Boult took the lead at Eden Park, claiming figures of 5-27 to skittle the Australians for 151. Another McCullum blitz placed New Zealand in the driving seat in the chase, but standing in the way remained a freakish force of nature that day: the left-arm ferocity of Mitchell Starc.

***

McCullum carves the ball into the hands of mid-off. But New Zealand are 78-2 after 7.4 overs and need 74 more runs. It’s simple. The game’s in the bag.

But Starc is something else. It’s one thing for a fast bowler to be fired up; it’s another thing to use that inner rage to find tantalising control. Today, Starc has it; he has everything. And in particular, he has some precious swing.

Taylor’s off stump is sent flying to make it 79-3. Such has been the speed of the game that lunch is called during the New Zealand innings.

The man set to come in after the break is Elliott.

“I had to wait for lunch before I went out to face the rest of the over. We were preparing for him to not swing it. The message was that Starc only swings it for two overs. Thinking whether or not the ball is going to swing is not a great place to be at.”

Starc proves too hot to handle for Elliott

Lunch has been served and Elliott is dessert. His stay lasts one ball as Starc finds that beautiful curve into the right-hander to leave Elliott’s feet in a deeply horrendous tangle. His middle-stump is uprooted and he looks like he’s using his bat as a walking stick, with no semblance of balance or footwork.

“There’s not many deliveries that you think back to across your career and go: ‘That’s just absolutely beaten me.’ Normally it’s the batter’s mistake but that ball I got from him – I was just…nowhere. He was on fire. When a left-arm bowler swings the ball back, it’s so dangerous. When you’re doing it at 150-plus, you can blow teams away.”

Anderson and Williamson administer a rescue-job and the game seems over once more. But Starc arrives for his final act, intent on inflicting sheer villainy on the home support. One after one he picks the batsman off with disturbing ease. A vein-pumping, fire-breathing scream emerges after he bowls Southee, and New Zealand are one more pinpoint yorker away from losing a game they had sewn up.

Eden Park rises for Williamson’s ice-cool six

Six runs needed. One wicket in hand. And then there’s Williamson, the most understated prince in all the land, ready to ensure good prevails over evil. He launches Cummins for the coolest six you’ve ever seen to send Ian Smith screaming in the commentary box.

“Straight down the ground, it’s gone for six! Kane Williamson has won it for New Zealand!

“What a day out at Eden Park!”

A better finish is on its way, Ian. Just wait.

***

The more I talk to Elliott the more I get the sense that this was a starkly different New Zealand changing-room to ones he’d been a part of before.

“New Zealand cricket had gone through a tough time. We’d gone through five coaches. We had Dan [Vettori] as captain, then Ross [Taylor] as captain and then Baz [McCullum], so there was a lot of baggage that the team carried. But we had a fresh team – a lot of the guys that were in that squad are going to be playing in the World Cup this year.

“Brendon’s biggest thing was that there were no superstars in the team. We showed a lot of humility as a team and we respected each other. Brendon was quick to pull up guys if they got ahead of themselves and he led by example.

“Playing cricket is just the best job in the world. It’s a pretty awesome job and you have to make sure you don’t get too caught up in this whirlpool of pressure and stress and feel burdened by the fact that you’re playing in a game of pressure. You need to enjoy every minute of playing with your mates and we did that in that tournament.”

***

Okay, where were we?

Steyn is about to bowl the most important ball of Elliott’s life but the batsman is thinking about his sister’s wedding. Why? Because if he takes New Zealand to the final, he’s going to miss the big day. A World Cup final wasn’t in the script some months earlier.

“She asked me four months before – basically when the selectors told me I wasn’t going to be there – ‘I’ve got a wedding venue on the day of the World Cup final.’ I said: ‘Listen, I’ve been told I’m going to be a replacement player and New Zealand have never made the final. I don’t want to take that venue away from you so go for it.’ So she did. Bizarre how things happen, right?”

Elliott raises his bat for fifty

Bizarre it is. But Elliott deserves to be where he is. He arrived at the crease with New Zeland 128-3. He’s battled against Messrs Steyn, Morkel, Philander and co with aplomb, seizing the semi-final limelight from plenty of more heralded players. While Elliott’s international career has been one of a game here, a game there, he’s shown he’s comfortable with the pressure. It was his patient 75 against Pakistan that guided New Zealand to the 2009 Champions Trophy final. That this is a grander stage only adds to Elliott’s vigour.

“Packed house at Eden Park, 40,000 people, all behind New Zealand – when you’re playing knock-out cricket and on such a big stage, I just think it’s such a big opportunity to show the skills that you have and show everyone what you’ve got under pressure. I’ve always thrived in those moments and I just saw it as a great challenge and great opportunity.”

His teammates believe in him too.

“Luke Ronchi, after he got out, came back to the changing room and said: ‘Grant’s got this.’”

But even Elliott, calm, cool and collected, has a nagging worry, a devilish voice simmering away at him.

“One of the things that was going through my mind was I didn’t want to be the one at the end who had lost the game. I would have really regretted that.

“Your natural instincts are you fight or you freeze.”

Steyn arrives and lets go. Elliott isn’t Norman at the ’96 Masters or pre-Southgate England in a penalty shootout – he chooses to fight.

“It’s either him or me. I was going for a boundary that delivery.”

The ball comes and sails from Elliott’s bat over long-on. He’s cleared the boundary. Elliott’s arms are stretched, and he bellows into the Auckland night.

“I let it all out when I hit the shot. What you saw, that was my elation, contentment and relief that I got the team over the line. I was out there batting for my teammates and to get the team over the line.”

Ian Smith is calling him Superman but Elliott doesn’t fly away in celebration. He goes over to console a broken Steyn.

Elliott consoles Steyn after sealing victory

“I had a lot of empathy towards the South African guys. Having been born there, I went through a lot of World Cup heartache; going back to the 1992 World Cup, needing 22 from 13 that turned to 22 from one; 1999 with the Klusener-Donald mix-up; then 2003 when Nicky Boje ran on and told them the score they needed for Duckworth-Lewis but it was the score to tie…I knew how much they were hurting.”

It’s a photographer’s delight; a recreation of Lee and Flintoff in ’05, and it perfectly encapsulates the victory and the valour of this New Zealand side. McCullum’s humble men are in the World Cup final.

***

Now, as we all know, this story doesn’t end in crowning glory for Elliott and his teammates. From the off, the final is a one-way show directed by Michael Clarke’s side.

The match begins with Guptill leaving his first and dabbing his second, but the contest doesn’t really start until McCullum takes guard, and Starc cranks it up. Each has had the tournament of their lives, and inside the MCG, Australia’s Colosseum, they are less cricketers and more gladiators. When New Zealand’s captain is yorked third ball, the noise from over 90,000 spectators surely matches anything heard in Rome’s heyday.

While the dismissal of New Zealand’s talisman doesn’t break the visitors’ spirit, the importance of home advantage becomes clear to see, with the Black Caps playing their first match of the tournament away from their own shores.

“We were quite a calm team – it was more the roar from the crowd that shook guys up. It was a massive MCG crowd. We all believed that everyone in that team was a matchwinner.

“It wasn’t like we deflated, but it was just a shame he got out. He batted that way the whole tournament so he wasn’t going to change in the final.

Another big stage and another big innings – Elliott celebrates a half-century in the World Cup final

“Us not playing in Australia in the pool games had an effect – these were different conditions and the ball tends to bounce just a little bit more in Australia.”

Nonetheless, New Zealand recover, and once again Elliott seizes his moment, putting on 111 with Taylor for the fourth wicket.

“We were 150-3 after 35 overs and I thought we were going to get 260-270, which was always our aim. We were placed well and [James] Faulkner got one and we collapsed. The ball tailed a little bit and Faulkner got three quick wickets which changed the game. They weren’t particularly good balls but I just felt like that moment we built up a good foundation and all of a sudden we were 190 all out.”

“I still think about the moment we were 150-3”

Australia’s chase is a comfortable one, an antithesis to the drama that unfurled when the two sides met earlier in the tournament.

Elliott and his teammates watch on as Clarke lifts the trophy. “I still think about the moment we were 150-3,” Elliott admits.

***

New Zealand, forever the bridesmaid. But sometimes trophies are just trophies. And cricket is, well, just cricket.

As England’s current crop of ball-striking maestros get set to take centre-stage for the latest edition of the World Cup, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the free-spirited ways of New Zealand’s Class of 2015. Reinvigorating a nation’s love of a sport is a different kind of reward to a World Cup title, but maybe no less of one. Legacies aren’t defined simply by trophies. 

And while Elliott’s name doesn’t lie in the pantheon of cricketing greats, he will forever have that moment: a smack down the ground, a wedding to be missed and the world at his feet. 

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