New Zealand enjoying the time of their lives, says Brendon McCullum

Martin Guptill’s innings of 237 not out made the headlines

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The Independent Online

In a typically unaffected observation the other day, Brendon McCullum, New Zealand’s revered captain, said: “It’s the greatest time of our lives.” His team are experiencing an outpouring of attention and affection that has never before been accorded cricketers in this country.

This World Cup and the Kiwis’ performances in it have captivated the population. That has been multiplied several-fold since Martin Guptill’s innings of 237 not out in the quarter-final on Saturday night.

Now New Zealand, after a glorious campaign in which they have stayed immaculately true to their ideals, are one step away from the World Cup final.

It is probable that nobody outside South Africa would begrudge them negotiating it successfully tomorrow. But South Africa, too, are in cracking form and seem undeterred by the mantle that it is their lot to carry, of being the arch-chokers.

Neither nation has appeared in a final. This is the seventh time from 11 attempts and the third in succession that New Zealand have progressed this far. South Africa have been here three times before, their team still blighted by the trauma of the 1999 tied semi-final against Australia that they seemed to have won before being denied a place in the final on countback.

Whatever they say, both sides will be affected by this kind of history tomorrow, knowing also that they are on the verge of making it for their country.

New Zealand cannot have foretold the weight of expectation that has been bestowed on them by seven consecutive victories in the tournament. South Africa and their implacable captain, A B de Villiers, appear to have reached a peak of competitive certainty but the frailties that always lurk beneath this carapace have already been exposed twice.

The events of Saturday night in Wellington have merely enhanced the status of McCullum’s men as folk heroes. Guptill’s innings has probably transformed his life. He has often been a spectacular performer, with six previous one-day hundreds, including 189 not out from 155 balls against England two years ago.

But that was positively understated compared to his deeds at the Cake Tin stadium, which took the quarter-final completely from West Indies’ reach. He reached his first hundred in 111 balls; the next 137 took 52. The assurance and orthodoxy of his striking down the ground was extraordinary and bore comparison with anything seen before. The smitten crowd could only keep chanting his name long into the night.

The quarter-final ties all followed the pattern of the competition itself. There was a dearth of close games.

South Africa, like New Zealand, won with plenty to spare against Sri Lanka. It meant that there were no surprises and the last four that would have won a majority as likely semi-finalists, if not quite unanimity, before a ball was bowled, are all through.

No team should now have everything their own way. New Zealand and South Africa will charge at each other tomorrow, neither intending to give quarter. McCullum himself would dearly like to leave his mark on the event with something truly spectacular, beyond even his bravura 77 from 25 balls against hapless England a month ago.

He is a man for the occasion but he will not temper his instincts in any way. New Zealand have reached that enviable state where they refuse to compromise because they genuinely believe that if they keep attacking someone will succeed. It has worked for them until now and the team follow McCullum’s lead.

South Africa are barely different. Their top order is full of booming hitters and the lowest strike rate among their top six runscorers in the competition is Faf du Plessis’s 87.13.

The lay-out of Eden Park may influence the course of things. The short square boundaries are inviting and it may come down to which bowlers can exert most control  – that term being relative. Can New Zealand’s vaunted pace duo of Trent Boult and Tim Southee make more incisions than Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel? The feeling is that they can.

The spinners on both sides, Daniel Vettori of New Zealand and Imran Tahir of South Africa, can expect to be targeted. Two or three new-ball wickets for two superb attacks may just alter the tone of the contest.

It is rare, perhaps unique here, for a cricket match to be so anticipated. If New Zealand prevail it will not be quite the same again, for the final is in Melbourne. This, then, is the biggest cricket match ever to be played in this country. It has every chance of coming up with a game befitting that.

As McCullum said: “The guys have had some incredible experiences. I guess it’s one of the things that you don’t want to finish any time soon.”