Incredibly, the Black Caps have made the Cricket World Cup final. In a sleep-deprived daze, Alex Braae reflects on the mountain of pain that went into seeing them get there.
We don’t watch cricket because we want to. We watch it because we must.
Cricket is a sport with pain built into it. Not the brute crashing pain of rugby, where you know terrible collisions with other bodies are inevitable. The pain of cricket is more subtle.
It withers the bodies, and often the souls, of practitioners. The skin of those who play a long season takes on a deep leathery quality, of sunburn after sunburn being baked in. Every fast bowler in the world has a niggle in the ankle that lands first, one which will never fully come right again. It takes so long just to play a game, and widows the partners of its devotees.
For batsmen, the internal pain is almost invariably worse. Imagine the mental fortitude Martin Guptill must need, to keep allowing himself to walk out onto the field. His World Cup began with a buffet from the Sri Lankan bowlers, and he dined out. Since then he has starved. Sometimes the meal has been snatched from his hands by pure misfortune, but he goes hungry all the same. In this game, he simply threw it away. How does anyone survive such torment intact and then, at the game’s most critical moment of all, throw down the stumps to put his side into the final?
Looking at the tournament as a whole, the Black Caps have no right to be going to Lord’s. It’s not so much the win-loss record. It’s the way they have played, and just how narrow were the wins in the group stage, none of them against a team that finished in the top five. The batting has been at times horrific. Against Australia and England in particular, the goal by the end looked basically like protecting the net run rate. In the end, that was smart, as the only saving grace for qualification.
It was made so much worse by the losses all coming at the end of the campaign. The wheels were falling off, and the reckoning was coming. We would be flogged by the might of India – a team so good they can sometimes afford to leave an all-round genius like Ravi Jadeja out. They have the best fast bowler in the world, the best opener, the best no 3, the best tactical mind in the game behind the stumps and the best crowd support.
And this one took two days! As if to stretch the cruelty out even further, the extremely foolish among us stayed up until being relieved by rain sometime after one in the morning on the first night. We saw more than half the innings played out as dots, and despaired at each one of them. And then in the morning, we rubbed sleep from our eyes at work and expressed which stage of grief we were at – some raged about Ross Taylor chewing up balls, some deluded themselves into thinking actually, something around 240 might be defendable.
Give it five overs tonight before going to bed, said the boss. And then Rohit Sharma, a record-setter at this tournament, nibbled one behind. And then Virat Kohli got hit in front. And Rahul pushed at one he should have left. And then Karthik hit the ball somewhere near Jimmy Neesham, who took the sort of catch that will pop unbidden into his mind, in idle moments for the rest of his life.
Only cricket could have given us this, because the essence of loving cricket is the dream of having one perfect afternoon. When it is sunny and the ball flows languidly from your bat. When the slip holds a screamer off your bowling, and it is a wicket you deserved. When you walk off in the twilight, deeply satisfied that your choice of how to spend a whole Saturday was the right one.
The Black Caps just gave the nation a version of this moment, and fittingly it was there for those who hungered after it the most. Huddled over a laptop in the dead of a wintry night, knowing that you can’t shout loud enough for the team to hear you in England, because you’ll wake your flatmates up. Riding both the extreme high of seeing India 5-3 at the start, and the grind of Mitchell Santner slowly squeezing the life out of the game, and the terror late in Jadeja’s partnership with MS Dhoni that it might all be taken away. How close they came, too.
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The feeling today isn’t elation. It’s catharsis. It’s the release of the grief that has come before. It’s the acceptance of the maddening suffering and pointlessness of cricket. It is knowing that we’ve spent a full 29 hours of life agonising over some concept called the run rate. At the end of the night, it sounded like Jeremy Coney on Radio Sport was about to break down, and nobody would blame him.
And it’s not the end of the pain – anyone can see that will return again all too soon. It might even be as early as the final on Sunday night, just as it was in 2015. Even if the Black Caps go on to win the tournament, it won’t be long before we see the team slump to 30-5 again.
But for now, just accept what the Black Caps have given us. After a tournament of suffering through sleeplessness just to see the games, we have had a night to remember.