Joys of Twenty20 cricket laid bare in explosive Dunedin encounter

You’re not supposed to like 20-over cricket. You know the story: too loud, too shallow, too much money, ruining proper techniques and concentration spans. Especially lamentable when played between national teams who should be doing something more dignified. All that stuff we’ve heard for what will soon be 20 years. But on a sunny afternoon when you have nothing to think about, 20-over cricket can be something else.

That sunny afternoon might come at University Oval. Grass banks most of the way around to lie on, a single low-rise pavilion with gables supporting a terracotta-coloured roof. It is not the sort of venue you would associate with international matches. It is the kind of ground you would associate with Dunedin, that quiet town on New Zealand’s South Island that would probably not be overly demonstrative if you failed to call it a city.

It used to have the Carisbrook rugby stadium, balancing a cricket pitch between its short square boundaries. New Zealand last played there in 2004, and demolition crews swung the final ball in 2013. These days the only remnant is a red-brick row of entrances from Neville Street, retained as a heritage gesture. Right next to them springs up a giant metal warehouse for a steel company. The turnstiles sit in front of a few square metres of vacant dirt, marooned, as though waiting for ghosts to walk through those doors and disappear.

When the football codes moved to the big flash Glasshouse stadium built for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, cricket had to go back to something quieter. Hence the recent years at Uni Oval. But in a country unbruised by the pandemic, where people can gather and sit together without hazard on the open grass, Uni Oval during Thursday’s match between New Zealand and Australia looked like just about the best place to be in the world.

It worked for Martin Guptill. The opening batsman usually projects a sense of melancholy on the field, an impression entrenched when he was over and again the doomed figure at the heart of New Zealand’s 2019 World Cup ache. That sense sometimes lifts for a few moments, when he’s mid-air at gully, or when he’s swinging through the line of a full, straight ball. There are moments when it seems that literally nobody has hit one better. The length of his arms, the straightness of his strike, the purity of sound.

He made 97 from 50 balls to start the day. Eight of those went for six. At one point he hit the sight screens at opposite ends of the ground in consecutive balls. Most of his blows didn’t disappear into a seating bowl like at some vast stadium; they left the ground altogether. They cleared a nearby building, disappeared into a car park, or off into an empty football field. In the really old days you didn’t get any more than the standard four runs for clearing the boundary; to get five or six you had to hit the ball out of the plot of land the oval was on. Guptill was hitting those.

Kane Williamson was the quiet offsider, the captain and accumulator, and still added a half-century in 32 balls. If there was a brief thought that Guptill’s dismissal might slow the scoring, Jimmy Neesham walked in to clear the fence with his first three balls. He ended up 45 not out from 16, the best of his sixes coming from a reverse ramp shot over third man. Work that out if you can. Any time you looked around, something else was disappearing into the high blue sky. Catch after catch was dropped on the hill, or spilled drinks at the fancy tables in the pavilion. Even in his total score of eight, Glenn Phillips managed to launch a ball into the midwicket crowd.

Australia met the entertainment challenge. Marcus Stoinis is the patron saint of lost causes, especially in New Zealand. It was a one-day game in Auckland four years ago when he ended up 146 not out and seven runs short, the last man standing, having made most of the 224 runs added after coming in at 54-5.

This time around Australia lost three wickets in an over and were 116 for 6. They needed 107 from 42 balls, and Stoinis got them within five runs. Muscle for his sixes, heaving spin over the leg side, timing for his fours, through cover or over fine leg. He made 78 from 37, Daniel Sams rode shotgun with 41 from 15. It’s rarely much of a game for bowlers, but it was Trent Boult’s skill that decided it: with the Australian pair flying and 18 balls to go, his yorkers kept them to six runs from an over and put the final push just beyond them. Both of them fell in the final over, their effort one big hit short.

If that was your afternoon of spectating you could have no complaints. Entertainment for its own sake, athletes who had to go for broke rather than weigh professional probabilities. Even though sport operates as a corporate monolith, there are moments when you can still see the part of it that is local and approachable, something born of communities rather than sold to them. That was how it felt on Thursday: that sunny afternoon at a small ground, a bunch of people who are really good at something putting on a display, and seemingly half the town coming down to see the show.

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