“Positioned for success.” That’s the promise of the five star Pan Pacific Hotel Sonargaon in Dhaka, with rooms, so the brochure informs visitors, that exude the calm, harmony and diversity of the Pacific – a real home from home for the Black Caps of New Zealand preparing for their semi-final against the Proteas of South Africa suitably encamped at the overrated Sheraton.
With the aid of the World Cup Blimp and the best surveillance technology the Squire’s money can buy, Third Man was able to monitor a conversation in one such room in the Sonargaon yesterday and even grab the exclusive shot revealed above.
Kiwi captain Daniel Vittori, head coach John Wright and bowling coach Allan Donald were developing a game plan around the ‘C’ word. They calculated that the average winning score at the Shere Bangla National Stadium was 250. They factored in that if The Chokers batted second on this slow and low track the winning score could be trimmed to 230. Then they worked out that they could best reach that target if they kept at least 7 wickets in hand at the 34th over mark almost regardless of the runs on the board at that stage. They reasoned that the remaining 65 overs of the match would become purely and crucially a mental battle, and a battle they knew they had the will to win and that their opponents didn’t. It was an audacious if simple strategy.
Finally, the three grey heads broke out of their huddle to share their plan with the rest of the squad and spent the rest of the evening reminding the top five batsman, “Two of you must still be there at the start of over 36.”
The brilliance of the Black Cap’s victory today by 49 runs with a comfortable 40 balls in hand was down in no small way to the steadfastness and sense of belief with which the New Zealanders carried out their simple game plan.
When they lost their first two wickets for 16, Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor resisted their natural attacking impulses to stack up a 114 run partnership that took their side from the fifteenth over to almost the end of the 33rd.
As successive non- Kiwi TV and Radio Commentators sucked their teeth and scratched what hair they had, little did they realise that not only was the innings going according to plan, but that plan was in fact coming together like an unyielding vice crushing the mind of each South African.
The Black Cap’s final tally of 221 for 8 was ten or so runs short of their target, but their ability to scrap for dear life would ensure that, during the next three hours, the Proteas would have to face their demons.
Amla cut a ball from McCullum (N) down onto McCullum (B’s) foot where, behind the stumps, it helpfully ricocheted to Vittori at slip, sending an early frisson down the collective nervous system of the Proteas. But Smith and Kallis put on a reassuring 61 before the South African skipper gave a catch to substitute How off the bowling of Oram.
This brought the sublime de Villiers to partner Kallis, perhaps the greatest player of this form of cricket. By the 25th over the score had moved in measured fashion to 108 for 2; neatly halfway there at the halfway point.
The Kiwi’s never faltered. The captain, with his cunning use of bowlers and attacking fields, never gave an inch of ground, never stopped applying the kind of mental pressure that comes not from sledging but from cricketing skill and self-belief.
South Africa lost 6 wickets for 38 runs as Kallis played a big shot at a bigger boundary, Duminy hit over a ball from McCullum and du Plessis obliged by running out de Villiers who did not look like getting out in any other fashion.
It is possible that du Plessis will become the scapegoat for this latest example of The South African Choke. In six times of trying, South Africa had never won a knock-out game in a World Cup (that Counts). Faf did his best to resist psychological dissolution, with a six and three fours in a score of 36, and with Morkel took the score to a hope-inducing 172 with 50 needed from 43 balls. But it was too much on such a wicket. His end came as down on one knee he valiantly drove Oram into the safe hands of Southee at cover.
The final wicket fell without further addition to the score amid scenes of celebration on the one hand and utter despair on the other.
The decisive plan had come together. The architects, Wright and Donald, looked on with satisfaction as their master mason, Vittori, took his side on a victory lap before disappearing into the sanctuary of the dressing room.
This is developing into a fantastic world cup. Total cricket, has come not in the form of batsmen pursuing unguarded attack, but on absorbing wickets from clever captaincy, relentlessly committed bowling and resolute batting, which have produced clashes of cricketing intensity worthy of a Cup That Counts.
The mentally strongest have won, the weakest ultimately obliged by force majeure to surrender their grip.
Today in Mirpur the crowd went mental and so did the cricket.
EPILOGUE: Over at the Sheraton, late into the night, options on flights to Colombo were relinquished, bags packed and African souls searched.