As the Southern hemisphere rivals go head-to-head in the World Cup once again, Patrick Noone looks back on their last group match encounter: a thriller at Eden Park.
When New Zealand took on Australia at Eden Park in Auckland in the group stage of 2015 World Cup, the pre-match discussion was largely centred around the power of the two batting line-ups. Martin Guptill and Brendon McCullum v David Warner and Aaron Finch. Kane Williamson v Steve Smith. Corey Anderson v Glenn Maxwell.
Both teams were packed with talent who, at that stage of the tournament, had already shown themselves to be capable of making big scores; New Zealand through their all-out aggression from ball one, Australia with their well-grooved approach that was more measured, but by no means less effective.
And it was not just the identity of the batsmen on display that led to many assuming that this would be a run-soaked affair – the playing area at Eden Park is one of the smallest in world cricket, with tiny straight boundaries that batsmen of this calibre would surely have no trouble clearing repeatedly.
A washout in Brisbane for their game against Bangladesh meant that Australia had not played for two weeks since dispatching England with ease on the opening night of the tournament. Meanwhile New Zealand came into the Auckland game off the back of three comfortable wins against Sri Lanka, Scotland and England. Even at this early stage of the tournament, there was a sense that this was a battle between two of the strongest teams in the World Cup, the winner of which would likely top the group.
The game began much in the way that many expected. Australia hit 15 off the first over, nine off the second; Warner and Finch hit a six each – the former a top edge that flew over third man, the latter a booming drive over long-on. Those straight boundaries; so easily cleared.
The ball after Finch’s six, New Zealand struck back as Tim Southee bowled the right-hander. Relief for the bowler after conceding 17 runs from his first seven balls, but the respite was brief as Shane Watson worked his first ball – a leg-stump full toss – through square leg for four.
There was a chaotic, frenzied nature to everything in the opening stages of this encounter. Southee and Trent Boult had polished off both England and Scotland for less than 150 in their previous two matches, but Southee in particular was struggling for rhythm. He was either too full or too short, leaking boundaries and unable to string more than two dot balls together. After six overs, The Black Caps were staring down the barrel with Australia having raced to 51-1.
McCullum had to do something out of ordinary to change the momentum of the game, and he did so by turning to Daniel Vettori in the seventh over. New Zealand had not bowled a single over of spin in the first ten overs in any of their previous three matches, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
Bringing on a left-arm spinner to a well-set David Warner on a ground with short straight boundaries is about as gutsy as bowling changes get. But Vettori was one of the canniest operators around at the time and he repaid the faith his skipper bestowed upon him, beginning his spell with five successive dots before Warner finally cut him away for two off the last ball of the over.
Vettori would end up bowling his ten overs in succession, firing in darts at an average speed of 94kph, the fastest he’d ever registered in an ODI spell. He had two wickets to his name – the key scalps of Watson and Steve Smith – before he’d so much as conceded a boundary. Vettori completely changed the complexion of the match and his dismissal of Watson, coupled with Southee removing Warner for 34 with the very next ball, laid the platform for Boult to return for his second spell.
Having gone wicketless in his first five overs, it took the left-armer just two balls to strike in his new spell as Maxwell went for an expansive drive but could only drag the ball onto his stumps. Two balls later, Mitch Marsh was dismissed in identical fashion and it was now Australia’s turn to be in disarray.
Where McCullum was able to wrest back control of the game in bringing on Vettori, Australia were unable to stop the slide. 51-1 had become 97-6 and Boult’s tail was up – Clarke slapped him straight to cover in his next over – a wicket-maiden – before Mitchell Johnson did likewise in the over after that. Both were the kind of shot batsmen only play when their minds are muddled, when the game is so fraught that it does not allow for clarity of shot selection or execution.
Boult picked up his fifth when Mitchell Starc was bowled and the final analysis of his second spell was a staggering 5-3-3-5.
He and Vettori had changed the course of the game and Australia, rattled and reeling inside a now raucous Eden Park, were bundled out for 151 having scored 100-9 in the 25.2 overs since Vettori’s introduction.
This would surely be an easy chase for New Zealand, wouldn’t it? This was still Eden Park, with those short straight boundaries. Guptill and McCullum had chased down a similar target against England inside 13 overs just eight days previously; Australia’s chances looked slim.
They looked even slimmer still as soon as the run chase began. A no-ball from Johnson was glanced for four by Guptill and the ensuing free hit was disdainfully mauled over cover for six. Australia were defending 151 and had conceded 11 runs from one ball. Johnson would rein it back for that over at least, bowling five successive dots, but the carnage was set to continue, nonetheless.
McCullum charged his first ball from Starc – a harbinger of what was to come later in the tournament – nailing it for six over long-off. The Black Caps skipper followed that up in Johnson’s next over with a six and a four before misjudging a bouncer and being struck on the arm as he tried to duck. McCullum was deemed fit to carry on, but the whole episode added to the gladiatorial, frenetic nature of the contest.
Johnson had dealt a blow to McCullum but, in a game where only 303 runs were scored across both innings, his eventual figures of 6-1-68-0 are almost fascinatingly bad, not least because he managed to somehow sneak a maiden in there despite conceding more than 11 runs per over.
Those numbers illustrate the ruthless efficiency of Guptill and McCullum’s attacking against Johnson. Guptill’s free hit six was the only ball of Johnson’s he attacked, while McCullum attacked 11 balls, scoring 34 runs including five fours and two sixes.
With Johnson unable to get any semblance of control over the run chase, it was left to Starc to step up and try and drag Australia back into the contest. The left-arm quick picked up Guptill’s wicket at the end of the fourth over and delivered a body blow to the Kiwis when both Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott were bowled in successive balls after Pat Cummins had dismissed McCullum in the meantime.
Taylor was bowled by a searing 145kph in-swinging yorker before Elliott suffered the same fate, though on that occasion, Starc cranked it up further to 149kph and found even more swing. It was as close to perfection as you’re likely to see; a fast bowler delivering two balls on an almost identical spot at a crucial stage of a tight run chase.
Suddenly New Zealand were 79-4 and it was Starc’s turn to have the wind in his sails. The second of the tournament’s leading bowlers taking centre stage as a previously buoyant Eden Park was plunged into uncertainty.
A period of relative calm followed as Anderson rebuilt the innings with Williamson but, when the former was dismissed by Maxwell with the score on 131, it reopened the door for Starc to have one final push for victory.
Luke Ronchi gloved one behind in the second over of Starc’s new spell. Williamson remained as the sole recognised batsman, and after Cummins saw off Vettori in the next over, it became clear that this was going to the wire. New Zealand were 145-7, seven to win, three wickets in hand, Starc at the top of his run up.
Williamson took a single from the second ball of the over, giving Adam Milne four balls to survive. He would not even make it through one of those deliveries as Starc speared in another yorker that made a mess of his stumps. Southee was next and he was no match for the Starc yorker either; stumps flying again, and Australia were on the brink of a famous victory.
Boult came to the crease as the number 11.
Two balls to survive.
The two protagonists of this most brilliant, blistering and downright bonkers game facing off against each other with the match on the line.
Boult was able to defend his first ball, Starc’s length comfortable enough for him to deal with
One ball to survive.
Starc went for his yorker again but for once his line was off and Boult could let it go through to the wicket-keeper. He had survived; six to win.
In amongst the madness, Williamson was a sea of calm at the other end. Allowing Milne to take strike in the previous over was about to become the costliest of errors, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way he nonchalantly backed away and struck the first ball of Cummins’ over for six over long on, one of only two sixes he would hit in the entire tournament.
For all the talk of this being a batting paradise, it was the performances of two bowlers that defined this match and turned it into a classic. Though, perhaps the discussions about the dimensions of the ground weren’t as ill-founded as it appears at first glance. Either side of the Boult/Starc heroics, this was a game that began with a six over third man and ended with a six over long-on.
Those straight boundaries; so easy to clear after all.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.