"To be honest and not overstating, it possibly changed my life."
20 years down the line, Geoff Allott's face still lights up with child-like excitement reminiscing about the 1999 World Cup as we sit down for a chat at the iconic Taj hotel in south Mumbai.
It's a balmy morning, Allott has flown down to Mumbai for a business trip and given me a strict 40 minutes. Clad in a smart blue blazer, he offers a warm handshake and orders a masala chai as we sit for a chat that touches the hour mark and delays his meeting. But he’s all fine and bustling with energy as he takes me down the memory lane.
It was a tournament that sprung him into limelight. Yes, he was that guy who finished as joint-highest wicket-taker along with Shane Warne in the 1999 World Cup! In his own words, "It changed his life."
"And I say that because now I have got a career where we own a business, Quality NZ, which has a subsidiary in India and deals with over 300 five-star hotels to bring in premium New Zealand products. Having a little bit of profile in cricket has significantly assisted that business," he explains.
"Sometimes I walk into some meetings and people still remember the 1999 World Cup, they don't remember me for anything else and rightly so (laughs) but that's possibly enough to help open a few doors. It has allowed me to continue relationships from cricket and carry it into the business. The other day, we walked into one of the leading hotel chains and one of the senior procurement directors looked down at my business card and looked back up and said, "World Cup 1999, 20 wickets!" And from that point, it changed our conversation. We had something in common and we've had since developed tremendous relationships. The combination of cricket and the passion the Indians have for the game comes through in our business as well. We love being in this market. And I love the fact that we can combine cricket and business with India and New Zealand."
Allott swung them and that too at a decent pace to shatter opposition top-orders in that World Cup. He was one of the protagonists who played a vital role in New Zealand reaching the semi-final of the World Cup. Ravaged by injuries, Allott's selection was an afterthought and then he ended up breaking the record for most wickets in a single World Cup. Quite a story in itself.
That story, however, was built on the base of hard work, determination, and bravery.
The back and hip injuries coupled with technical problems had threatened to derail Allott's career. And in a bid to resuscitate his career, he quit his bank job a year before the World Cup and concentrated on remodelling his action in order to be ready for the mega event.
"I had 12 months to try and do everything I could to make that squad," Allott recalls. "It was everything to me. I was a very limited talent so to actually have a chance to make the team was significant. I trained three times a day and I was doing everything I possibly could. I resigned from my job and focused on trying to make that 15 that would give me a chance to represent at the World Cup. And as it turned out, through perseverance and terrific support, I learnt how to swing the ball all of a sudden through some change in technique and then I started to believe I could support the team with its endeavors to do well at the World Cup."
And then he came. Conquered. And left. It wouldn't have been possible without that lethal inswinger that breached the defences of the top-orders. Allott was a muscle bowler, a hit-the-deck kind of a bowler who tried to bowl quick bowler. However, you can have only limited success being one-dimensional. And unsurprisingly, after a point, he struggled and got dropped. It was then coach Steve Rixon's advice after being discarded for the 1998 Hobart Test that proved to be a seminal moment in the left-arm pacers' career.
"It was a good open discussion, Rixon told me, 'Geoff, you have got to develop an inswinger to be effective.' And he was right. What it proved going to Australia is I was okay with having pace, but good players can play pace, doesn't matter if you are bowling 145 kph, so you have to be able to move the ball. And literally, I went out at the back when I was off duties as 12th and 13th man in the Test, into the nets and just experimented.
“One day I just decided to put that 3rd finger on the ball on the seam and the ball swung. And I have never been so excited in my life, to be honest. The three fingers on the ball raised the angle of my wrist which then meant that the ball was presenting seam up, so instead of laying it down which I had done before and wasn't swinging and was more of going away to the slips, all of a sudden I could actually bowl an inswinger. It was a terrific moment and I knew right at that instance that I finally have been able to get the seam up and move the ball inwards. And of course, as a left-armer, that's a complete different kill of fish. It was a great moment but obviously, I had to go and practice it."
He utilised that inswinger in the South Africa series in the build-up to the World Cup and achieved decent success which helped him with his confidence and selection. That weapon proved to be the master key for unlocking defences at the World Cup.
"To be honest, it was a difference between whether I had a career or not. As simple as that. Rixon was a 100 percent right and I still say that today, if you see the international bowlers, their quality, they don't have two deliveries but 5 or 6 different ones and they are able to execute them a large percentage of times. I wasn't at that level and I knew that I needed to have at least 2-3 different deliveries to be effective. And that gave me my ODI career and it actually allowed me to finish my Test career on a positive note as well because all of a sudden I was able to bowl some inswingers in Test cricket as well."
The 1999 World Cup was the first time the Dukes ball was used in ODIs. It swung more than the traditional white Kookaburras. The Dukes were different but thanks to some meticulous planning by the New Zealand management, they bought these balls back home to practice in camps and that helped the bowlers with their preparation.
Allott practiced hard with the Dukes ball. He could then go on to master the damp conditions and generate nasty lift from a length. Not just the away and inswing, he made astute use of reverse swing as well. It was a confidence game that the left-arm pacer aced match after match.
"Confidence is a big thing. I practiced hard with that Dukes ball. We got some conditions early that suited me. And I was fortunate to pick up early wickets in every game. That makes a massive difference to your confidence.
"The other thing those days was that the ball wasn't swapped and I was able to revert back to my old style and get the ball to reverse from 38 odd overs onward, so I was able to be reasonably effective sometimes in the death overs as well. Captain Fleming, coaches and management allowed us to have clear minds about what our jobs were and then we were able to go out and concentrate just on that and execute."
While the Dukes ball swung, a lot of bowlers couldn't control the swing as it behaved weirdly. The tournament had the highest wides-per-match figures of any World Cup. So, then how did Allott manage to achieve that control?
"Oh! I think those guys were better than me when they were used to swinging it normally anyway," Allott laughs. "So, because I wasn't used to swinging it a big way, mine was just perfect (laughs). That was probably one of the things. Some of the bowlers that were there, I looked up to those guys. I had admired those guys for so long, from all countries. Some of them are regarded as legends of the game. So playing alongside and against some of those guys was terrific. They were better at normal swing bowling and they did swing a lot early on. But we noticed a significant change almost halfway through when the wickets started to dry up. And that's when you actually saw the spin bowlers coming through and the likes of Shane Warne being really effective."
Allott's gameplan was clearly defined: Go for early wickets.
"I am still very clear in my mind (even) now, it was my job to go out and be efficient, but at the end of the day, my job clearly was to get wickets. And I was lucky, I was able to pick up probably a couple early every time. Unfortunately, when we reached the semi-final, I couldn't deliver. But up until that point, I was reasonably effective."
It's been 20 years to that tournament but Allott vividly remembers his wickets. The memories are still fresh in mind as he explains his favourite wickets and deliveries with action and animation.
"I do remember the World Cup game against Australia. We had toured them in 1998 and I was given a bit of pasting by Mark Waugh and Adam Gilchrist, (Michael) Bevan and so forth. To get four wickets including Gilchrist and Waugh early was really special for me. But also Sourav Ganguly's wicket was another key moment for me. We had really worked hard to get into the game and at that time we were tightening back up again. We knew what a great player he was. And fortunately, Nashy (Dion Nash) had got rid of the great Sachin so we were in with a chance and with Rahul going reasonably early as well. We were desperate. It was a difference of semi-final or not. From a player’s point of view with limited talent, which is how I view myself, you've got to pinch yourself any World Cup wicket. I still pinch myself today to say 'My goodness I actually played on the world stage and got some amazing names in world cricket'. And I will always be grateful for that."
I ask him about his favourite delivery...
"Geez! Possibly, I am going to pick two. The ball to Ganguly, it just swung back actually and late, there was a bit of reverse. And to take out the middle pole or wicket against a player of that calibre was also special. But also in the context of the importance of the game against Australia, Mark Waugh's wicket (LBW) as well where it swung back, using the work that I had done for 12 months to try and get the ball to finally pay off in that capacity. I was pretty chuffed."
Not the crushing yorker to Saleem Malik at Derby?
"The only problem with that ball was I had gone for about 50 before that (laughs). So, my memories of that game weren't as good. But those guys had hit us around the park a fair bit so you've got to put that in context."
Allott's performance was one of the driving factors behind New Zealand making it to the semis. The road traversed, however, was a bumpy one. They started off with a comprehensive win over Bangladesh and then outclassed the tournament favourites Australia. Then they lost their way a little bit losing to West Indies and Pakistan before winning against Scotland to make it to Super Six. The Super Six match against Zimbabwe was rained out and they lost their next Super Six match against South Africa before winning the crucial one against India to qualify for the semis.
And then Pakistan hammered them in the semis.
"It was a really tense tournament for us. Probably the most disappointing part was we didn't fire in that semi-final. That's a memory I will always regret. I personally put my hand up and I think I was distracted a little bit by trying to bowl too quick. But not taking anything away from Pakistan as well, they were terrific side and thoroughly deserved to win. It was a good lesson at the same time for us. And look, the semi-final of a World Cup for a New Zealand team, you normally would scoff at that and we had worked hard to get there, it hadn't been easy."
Electing to bat first against Pakistan at Manchester, New Zealand posted 241/7. In reply, Pakistan romped home by nine wickets with the openers Saeed Anwar (113 not out) and Wajahatullah Wasti (84) putting on a 194-run opening stand. According to Allott, the combination of atmosphere and lack of early wickets led to their failure.
"We didn't take early wickets for the start. And that was my job so that's why I put my hand up. They got off to a good start and that led to strong confidence. There were 30,000 people there and probably 29,999 were of Pakistani descent. It was like a home game for them. It was a terrific atmosphere. It put pressure on our batting unit as well. Obviously, they had some terrific bowlers. Shoaib (Akhtar) came in and knocked us around way bit. The rest is history. We didn't front like we wanted to and it was disappointing."
The win against Australia though was one of the highlights of the tournament for the Kiwis. Electing to bat first, Australia were reduced to 32/2 inside 9 overs as Allott sent back both Gilchrist and Waugh. Ricky Ponting and Darren Lehmann (76) then resurrected but once Nathan Astle sent back Ponting for 47, Australia kept losing wickets at regular intervals and Allott came back to pick up two more wickets — of Michael Bevan and Shane Warne to restrict Australia to 213/8. New Zealand were in tatters in the chase at 49/4 in the 16th over. However, Roger Twose (80 not out) and Chris Cairns (60) played brilliantly to clinch the game for the Kiwis.
"To beat the ultimate tournament winners was bittersweet in many ways. But when you go through their list of players, they were an incredibly star-studded side. We talked about it as trying to focus on them as cricketers and not as identities. And then be very clear on what our specific roles were, what our plans were. And those were the early stages of really doing a good analysis on players. I think we got our plans right against certain players. For us, NZ didn't beat Australia that often. So to come away with that one was a really positive step for us."
The celebrations weren't grand but the atmosphere made it special.
"The problem is that in those days, you are up the next day and had a game two or three days later. So we didn't celebrate a whole lot. As a team, we had a couple of drinks. It's important to recognise games like that. It was terrific just after the game soaking up that atmosphere and being out on the balcony and immersed in among the New Zealand crowd. There was a lot of New Zealanders traveled to England and Europe. There were about half a dozen people who each player knew at the ground. Just to share that time is the lasting memory for me."
With so many fresh memories, does he sometimes sit back and watch the videos of his wickets on YouTube?
"No, I am not that sad," he laughs. "Look, I sometimes have them when I am asked to do some speaking. People will find them and the footages are a bit crackling. It's 20 years and a long time ago, so people have moved on. We had terrific moments as a team. When you finish and reflect back, you are just grateful for the moments you have had."