2016 World T20: The fire and water of Grant Elliott12 min read . Updated: 17 Mar 2016, 11:04 AM IST
Grant Elliott on his World Cup Semifinal feats against South Arica and his favourite work on cricket
Grant Elliott on his World Cup Semifinal feats against South Arica and his favourite work on cricket
So, Grant Elliott, how was it out facing Dale Steyn, all that pressure on you? Ever calm and personable, Elliott smiles. “You have to try stay in the present, and you have to enjoy the moment as much as you can … You have to think positively about it, and fortunately I came out at the other end. I could’ve been the one lying on the floor in despair, but fortunately I wasn’t, and it was great to see your teammates, how happy they were, as well as the crowd. New Zealand, as a nation, were pretty stoked with getting into the final."
This writer had never experienced anything like being in the ecstatic Eden Park crowd when Elliott smacked the South African quick for six into the grandstand down long-on from the second to last ball, to put the Black Caps into their first World Cup final. Even men who had yelled the odd homophobic comment during the game were hugging random blokes around them.
Then Elliott made that noble gesture of sportsmanship to Steyn distraught on the ground, offering him a hand up.
Hometown Wellington’s verdant green through his lounge window behind him, Elliott explains, “South Africa have been through a lot of tough World Cups, there have been some bizarre circumstances of [them] leaving the tournament. I felt that pain when I was growing up in South Africa. Then this game. Win or lose, you have to show humility. That could’ve been me on the floor and I’d expect the same treatment from the opposition; it is only a game, where we hit a leather ball around a field. So, extend a hand, hard luck. It was him today, could be me the next game. That’s just sport."
Elliott’s firm handshake, intelligence, and good humour make him one of the game’s gentlemen. About two years ago, he was seriously considering giving up. Martin Crowe was one of the people who encouraged him to keep on keeping on.
Elliott got off the mark at Eden Park suggesting how his intelligent, composed innings would play out: He cleverly tickled the bothersome Imran Tahir, South Africa’s spinner, for four. He made 84 not out off 73 balls, alternating seven fours and three sixes with patient singles and dot balls. More than an hour and a half of solid rain had clearly slowed the outfield, significantly disadvantaging New Zealand’s whole innings. Despite the desperate South Africans throwing everything at him, he kept his nerve as the game swung to and away from the Black Caps. Many supporters in the packed, electric Eden Park stands got frazzled as Elliott partnered calmly with Ross Taylor, Corey Anderson and fellow veteran (and erstwhile international schoolboy rival) Daniel Vettori.
The Black Caps’ emphatic quarterfinal victory over West Indies saw Elliott make an exciting, T20-esque cameo on his 36th birthday. He belted 27 runs off just 11 balls, hitting two sixes and two fours, at a strike-rate of 245. His and double-centurion Martin Guptill’s fifty-run partnership came off 15 balls.
Although it was disappointing sitting in the second row of the MCG from the white pickets for the 2015 final, Elliott’s commitment in the field till it was all over was notable. Andy Zaltzman, the cricket columnist, pointed out to me it’s statistically extraordinary for a batsman to bat so strongly in both a semifinal and the subsequent final.
It was heartening, pre-final, to see Martin Crowe walk past, looking well, buoyed by the occasion. Speaking a few days before Crowe passed, Elliott tells me Crowe’s bravery was inspirational. “It’s amazing. People said he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he has now. He’s obviously a fighter; he’s got that mental strength that he just keeps going."
Brad Haddin’s send-off after Elliott was dismissed for 83 was less salubrious. “I didn’t even hear what they said to be honest," Elliott laughs. “I knew they said something so I turned around. It was a mental note to see who said something, so if I ever needed to say something, I’d know who I’d direct it at. There was a number of them, I think. You’d probably be able to see it all in the photos."
In the home 2016 One-Day International series against Australia, the series win went New Zealand’s way. Then during his impressive PSL with the ball for Quetta Gladiators, Elliott started with a couple of Man-of-the-Match performances. In his first game, he got Brad Haddin out. “There is always that trans-Tasman rivalry, and we’ll have it again in the [ICC World T20]. It’s always heated exchanges against the Aussies. I really enjoyed the PSL. The standards were very high, it was really well run."
I note the PSL was heartening, especially given the challenges Pakistan have got with poverty, terrorism and security conditions. “Yeah, it’s great to inspire the children of Pakistan. Sport brings people closer together and brings the nation closer together. Sport is one of the cornerstones for every nation to build their youth to aspire to dreams, keeps them off the streets and out of trouble."
Elliott even had fun bowling against Chris Gayle. “Yeah I did actually, bit nervous obviously bowling to Chris, but the conditions did suit my bowling a little. I managed to hit some good lines and lengths and you enjoy the challenge. He’s the best T20 batsman in the world."
Was there some good-natured sledging with Gayle? Elliott laughs that genial laugh again. “Nah, there was no sledging, you don’t sledge him!"
Elliott enjoyed working with Sir Viv Richards, Quetta’s mentor. “I loved having Viv around. I never got to see him as a youngster growing up because of sanctions against South Africa so we only watched local cricket, we never got to watch international cricket. I watched the tapes later. Before I went over, I didn’t realise he was in our team. I watched Fire in Babylon and got a real feel for what those guys went through. So was pretty cool seeing the way he carries himself, and asking him questions about his career and finding out how he overcame certain things and what fuelled his career. You could see it was more than cricket, cricket can serve some good messages in the world internationally, and the way those West Indians served the Caribbean, but also for bigger and better causes, it was pretty amazing.
“He’s just a delight to have in the changing room, he’s high energy, he’s 63 going on 23, to be honest. I got on pretty well with him, he’s probably got a better sense of humour than me."
Richards shared his philosophy during the tournament: “You need to have the swagger … You need to back your performances with confidence and walk as if you rule the world," and, “I’ve never been a big fan of technique, because it all depends on your brain and heart. If you’re brave, you can do anything but you need to have a clean head." “Those are pretty cool, eh?" Elliott smiles. “You will get some great ideas – whether they’re technical, tactical, mental, whatever they may be – out of these guys [like Viv Richards and Martin Crowe] and it’s great to be able to utilise them while they’re in the team. For me that’s what it’s about, your career; you can never be too much of an ego to stop learning from all these players."
Following New Zealand’s summer games against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the affection that saw crowds vote Elliott’s semifinal feats as the sporting moment of the year at the 2016 New Zealand Sport Awards was vibrantly evident, even when he had some bad days with the bat. Elliott made flamboyant entrances to Matthew McConaughey’s Wolf of Wall Street hum. “Yeah got a bit of flack from that," Elliott laughs. “That movie made a huge impact on my career I think."
On a more serious note, he remains a committed environmentalist, and recently tweeted his disapproval of Paula Bennett, the environment minister, and her National Party’s management of climate change: “Not a great look for us as a country."
One reason Elliott is into green energy is he’s a family man. “It’s good to be able to get away from professional sport, otherwise it does consume you … you can’t let it consume your thoughts. When you’ve got a four-year-old running around there’s not much else to worry about."
The 36-year-old has considered himself a Kiwi for nine years. The Black Caps first recalled him for their first ODI series win in South Africa in 2013. Elliott helped win it with a handy 48 in Kimberley, where he started his first-class career. “It was pretty surreal."
He initially came out to New Zealand as part of elite South African school St Stithians’ first-XI, and tussled with Vettori, his 2015 partner at the World Cup semifinal crease. “It’s bizarre who you meet, cricketing circles are quite small. I played with Michael Lumb in Under-19s and at school, he went on to play for England. You play this game in hard in the field, but you want to make friends off it, you want to finish your career and people have the respect for you on and, particularly, off the field."
Elliott agrees one of the great things about Brendon McCullum’s leadership was that his very aggressive approach to cricket was coupled with an emphasis on being good humoured, good spirited and being a good sport. “He’s instilled that in the players. It’s about thinking about the team and making sure that guys are not insular with their game, and not selfish with their goals. All of that transfers to actually helping your team mates off the park and enjoying each other’s company, and it’s probably the best environment I’ve been in. Guys want to give more to the culture and the team, and ensure that they stay there for a long time. You want to perform because you don’t want to find yourself out of this environment, which is so great and so fertile for guys to learn in.
“What I’ve always enjoyed most about sport is the team dynamics," Elliott recalls growing up. “I was built like a greyhound."
Although Kane Williamson will lead New Zealand at the T20 World Cup in India, Elliott thinks McCullum’s influence will remain. “What Baz has given to the group is for guys to play for your country, and don’t die wondering – you’ve got one career, play it the way you want to play it. He really led from the front by actions, the way he threw himself around the field showed he was committed to the cause. And that’s what you’ll find – 15 guys going to the World Cup that are committed to the cause."
Glancing at his bookcase, Elliott says he’s also found Alex Ferguson’s book on leadership interesting. “I’ve got Sachin’s book there, haven’t read that yet, got that like two Christmases ago. The book I’ve most enjoyed was the Andre Agassi book, thought that was awesome. Great book. I don’t read a lot but I couldn’t put that one down."
Fire in Babylon remains his favourite work on cricket, resonating beyond the culture of Richards and Lloyd. “It really did open my eyes to the hardships they went through before they became a great team. It was pretty amazing how Clive Lloyd, quite a good tactician, went out to the islands to find these young fast bowlers who were scaring the living daylights out of the Aussies and the English. And watching the footage of it was quite funny – when they started bowling the speed of light, they tried to banish them or put law in place that you couldn’t bowl a bouncer or intimidate the batsman. They tried to outlaw a lot of what they were doing to make the English and the Aussies a bit more dominant in the world of cricket. But the West Indies were real dominant despite the crowds and the opposition they got in the media."
Relaxed in a red cap and grey hoodie, Elliott is looking forward to playing India in Nagpur in the Super 10s opener. “I’m not as much of a cricket badger as I used to be, I guess you look at everyone as just being as human as you are. I really enjoy watching Virat Kohli bat – I think he’s an exceptional batsman. Other than that, I’m pretty chilled out with the whole thing. I think that helps you in cricket – if you can be quite relaxed about things and see the ball, hit the ball."
He’s hoping the wickets will be sporting. “When I’ve played in India it depends. Because it’s an ICC-run event, you’d like to think the wickets are going to be quite consistent and not favour the home side. So I guess we’ll see when we get there. We played on a couple of really good decks, but otherwise some decks that were a bit used, so there was a bit of a turn and stop. So hopefully my experience in the PSL will help put me in good stead, and get some similar wickets, that’d be great."
Elliott picks West Indies to go far in the tournament. “The West Indies are [going to] be a very good team, one of the teams to beat in the World T20. They’ll storm through in their group stages. They’re going to have all their stars players back."
He says his side will take thing one game at a time. “We’re in a really tough pool, so sights set on that first game against India and then we’ll move on after that. Hopefully we can beat the home team – that would be a great start, give the guys a lot of confidence. But it’s about finding our combinations early on, and making sure our batting and bowling partnerships – we’ve got the talent there, so it’s just a matter of seeing some exceptional performances like we saw in the World Cup."
As always, it’ll be a lively encounter with the Australians for their second T20I match, in Dharamsala. Elliott’s best innings in black include his resplendent 115 against Australia in 2009, the first ODI hundred a Kiwi had ever scored at the Sydney Cricket Ground, studded with elegant cover drives. He tells me his turning point in believing in himself came the second to last time New Zealand played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in 2009, where he scored 61 not out in a historic win. “All sportsmen have that little bit of self-doubt. It’s just the demons in your head that might be chatting, but I’m old enough now to push that away, and you just play and what will be will be."