I first saw Grant Elliott play in 2008. New Zealand were playing England in an ODI at Old Trafford, and, batting first, had lost their top 5 batsmen for less than 50 runs. Adding insult to injury, two of those wickets had been taken by Stuart Broad, his accuracy miraculously unimpeded by his combination emo-bangs-Flock-of-Seagulls hair. Broad and Tremlett, enormously tall bowlers both, were extracting vicious rearing bounce and movement off the pitch, and the Kiwi batsmen had looked alternately clueless and frantic in the brief moments they were actually at the crease.
I was watching for Daniel Vettori. He may have batted like a man still learning how to control all four of his new prosthetic limbs, but everyone knew he was the only one who could save New Zealand.
I had never seen nor heard of Grant Elliott before – unsurprisingly, as that was only his second ODI. After leaving his native South Africa for New Zealand, doing time in domestic cricket, and playing for Weybridge in the Surrey leagues to hone his skills, he’d finally earned a call-up to the New Zealand side, as injury cover for the all-rounder they would clearly much rather have had, Jacob Oram.
Jacob Oram is tall, burly, a well-known presence with his shambling walk and shaggy hair and broad gleaming grin, promising big hitting and salvation in the middle order. Grant Elliott, lean and rangy, walked out to the middle wearing a New Zealand kit at least two sizes too big for him, every inch a stoic yet forlorn substitute for the Real Thing, epitomizing the hopelessness of the cause. A club cricketer being unceremoniously tossed to the wolves that had decimated the heavyweights, his presence barely registered. A bored-sounding Geoffrey Boycott mentioned that, though this was Elliott’s second ODI, it would be his batting debut, then promptly resumed talking about how terrible New Zealand were. He didn’t mention that though Elliott hadn’t batted in his debut ODI (rain had curtailed New Zealand’s innings) he had bowled…well enough to return figures of 3-23, claiming Owais Shah, Paul Collingwood and Luke Wright. Perhaps Boycott didn’t remember, or thought it wasn’t relevant. Surely one of Broad, Tremlett or Anderson would take out the newcomer and the England juggernaut would roll on.
Two dot balls, a few moments of Daniel Flynn’s wild slashing, and Elliott was facing up to red-hot Stuart Broad. A ricocheting short ball sent him leaping, arching back as it whistled past his helmet, far too close for comfort. Broad grinned his best version of a shark’s smile; and I saw Elliott smile also, wide and easy, considering, amused…relaxed. It wasn’t a shaky grin of false bravado, or the sweaty anxious involuntary grimace-smile of a newbie who knows he is cannon fodder. Suddenly the overlarge shirt, not being Jacob Oram, and the direness of the situation didn’t seem to matter. He resumed his stance, touched his bat to the deck. Looked up again, directly at Broad standing at the top of his runup, and smiled again, even wider this time. A lopsided, Han Solo smile.
Bring it on.
He didn’t set the ground alight that day with explosive hitting. Grant Elliott is not that kind of player, quite, and Brendon McCullum had already tried that only to hole out for 17. What he did instead was stay at the crease, calmly leaving good deliveries and putting away bad ones, remaining as Flynn, Hopkins and even Vettori the saviour came and went in quick succession. When Kyle Mills opened up and began to hit long and hard, Elliott let him, concentrating on his self-imposed task. Leave good balls, hit anything that’s there to be hit. Only at the end of the penultimate over, in a bid for a final quick haul of runs, did he go, misjudging only slightly, but enough for Luke Wright to hold the catch a step in from the boundary. He’d made 52, but he’d stayed for 102 balls and over 2 hours.
Later in the day, he would run in, send down a fast fullish delivery to Chris Tremlett, and watch it balloon up off the top edge of the bat directly into his captain’s hands – his second wicket, winning the game for New Zealand with 22 runs to spare, and he’d smile again, a huge triumphant grin as his teammates mobbed him.
He wouldn’t be remembered for any of that, though. Five minutes at the Oval ensured that Grant Elliott would be permanently stamped That Guy Ryan Sidebottom Smashed Into and Paul Collingwood Screwed Over. Even as Mark Gillespie hit the winning runs, in the glorious chaos as Kyle Mills completed the run and leapt, punching the air, and the usually mild-mannered Daniel Vettori, who had sat glowering with cold, barely-suppressed rage on the balcony though the final overs, sprang to his feet screaming obscenities and pounding the railings with clenched fists, the cameras only briefly caught Elliott, laughing with joy before disappearing into a tangle of hugging New Zealanders.
The next time I saw him, he steadily took New Zealand to victory against Australia at Melbourne in the Chappell Hadlee series, and I wondered if he’d do it again to give them the series in Sydney.
I didn’t see the Han Solo smile in Sydney. The Sydney innings was pure grit, and running. Lots and lots of running. Watching big-hitting batsmen rack up boundary-runs is what people seem to want to see, but I couldn’t stop watching Elliott, sweating profusely, chest heaving, pale eyes intense and staring in his narrow dark face, pounding the SCG pitch. Always forcing one more run, darting in and out of the crease in a way that most Indian batsmen can’t even visualize as part of an aspirational yoga excercise, tempo never easing until a final, tired swing at the death found Michael Hussey at deep midwicket. He sweated and bled for his runs the same way Iain O’Brien did for his wickets, because he had to.
I was riveted.
He became a stabilizer, a composed middle-order striker with correct, technical strokes and the ability to stay at the crease instead of perishing in a flurry of misguided shots. And he kept chipping in with the ball, economically bowling wicket to wicket, getting swing, prising out a wicket here, two more there, a strong solid extra bowler. And every now and then, breaking through the earnest intentness: the incongruous wide, lopsided Han Solo grin – a misplaced swashbuckler’s smile.
The Champions’ Trophy would be the pinnacle. A ripping bowling spell, produced out of nowhere, in his home city of Johannesburg, was more of a joyous fairy tale than you ever usually get in real life, a bellow of incredulous jubilation ringing out at each wicket. After the high, he was out for just 3 at New Zealand’s turn at bat, which went mostly unremarked on in the wake of the Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill blitzkrieg that carried New Zealand through to the semis. It emerged later that a spitting delivery from Stuart Broad had snapped his thumb. It was still broken as he fought his way to an unbeaten 75 in the semifinal, and as he shook hands with a Pakistan team gracious in defeat.
The thumb was the beginning of what looks to be the end. Injuries forced him out of the New Zealand side at the highest point of his rise, and the window closed. In 2011, he was 32, still fighting injuries, and not selected for the Test or ODI teams, remaining instead captain of the domestic Wellington Firebirds. In that capacity, a few days ago, he reached 188 not out against the Central Stags in the Plunket Shield, breaking free of a lean run of form, just shy of a maiden first-class 200. He then declared the innings, remaining on 188, to give his team the best chance of bowling out the opposition for victory in the rapidly worsening weather.
It didn’t work. It’s difficult for a non-player like me to comprehend the frustration of something like that, but despite the fact that it’s kind of heartbreaking, it’s reassuring in a way. It’s always nice when an awesome, classy player does something to remind you of that fact about himself.
Grant Elliott turned 33 yesterday, which is why I’m writing this. Because I was a fan ever since that first ODI and that first awesome Han Solo smile, all the way through. Because I still listen to Plunket Shield on the radio in the middle of the night to see how the Firebirds are going with him at the helm. Because cricket is great at fêting its rockstars and celebrities, but usually ignores the quietly classy, and the gritty, driven guys who do the hard unglamorous stuff well. For reasons I can’t begin to understand, ESPNcricinfo didn’t include Grant Elliott’s birthday on their list of notable happenings in cricket for the 21st of March. I’m not sure why they didn’t feel they needed to acknowledge him, but they didn’t, and it’s not the first thing they’ve done that I disagree with, but it is something I can combat. So I wrote this.
Happy birthday, GE.