OPINION: New Zealand may only have half a cricket team, but it was still good enough to beat India, the major cricket power and a country of over one billion people. To call the Kiwis underdogs was probably an insult to the mangiest cur in this land, but they never let go and they destroyed India’s vaunted top order with a display of quality new ball bowling.
Kane Williamson’s men are now headed to Lord’s and a World Cup final against Australia or England. They should probably hope for England, who will be under greater pressure and haven’t always been at their best at the home of cricket. New Zealand must also hope for a bowler friendly pitch, because they have only got past 250 runs once in the entire tournament.
New Zealand have already lost to Australia at Lord’s in this World Cup, ripped apart by Mitchell Starc who took five wickets for 26 in the match. But it is a ground where these New Zealanders have played some very good cricket in the past.
When New Zealand played a test match against England at Lord’s in 2015 they were right on top after the first innings. Kane Williamson scored a century and Trent Boult had figures of 9 for 164 in the game. Do those names sound familiar? Williamson and Boult are the twin peaks, world-class cricketers, the rocks on which this team is founded.
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And expect New Zealand to defend for their lives. I smiled when Brendon McCullum was exhorting this team to “attack, attack” ahead of their semi-final. If they had attacked early on New Zealand would be rubble by now. Instead their two major batsmen, some would say New Zealand’s only two batsmen, Ross Taylor and Williamson, dug them out of a hole yet again.
They did it with brains and skill and sound defence and, fair to say, a good deal of luck. Taylor was dropped by the woeful MS Dhoni, for whom this was a World Cup too far, when he was barely into double figures. Williamson and Taylor both mishooked and saw their edges fall safe and they routinely played and missed.
I choked on my porridge when coach Gary Stead said: ”We’re working very, very hard in the nets and on things but at the end of the day sometimes you need a bit of lady luck as well.”
Williamson’s team haven’t always been perfect but they sure have been lucky in this tournament. They were one yard from defeat against Carlos Brathwaite and the West Indies. They had points for a rained off match against India whereas Pakistan, who finished level with New Zealand and beat them head-to-head, were rained off against struggling Sri Lanka. They also won a crucial toss in the semi, because whoever bats first at Old Trafford has won in all the recent matches.
New Zealand also got the conditions they would have prayed for. India’s top order routinely struggles in England when the ball is swerving in the air and nibbling off the pitch. They lost last year’s test series in England 4-1. And so it was again.
Boult and the excellent Matt Henry found the perfect line and length, and had the fortune you need. India’s top order edged instead of playing and missing for those crucial 10 overs when the ball was really zipping. And Virat Kohli was given out lbw on a marginal umpire’s call, the sort of decision that went New Zealand’s way when they batted.
Maybe the English umpires thought that India are just a bit too powerful, too much the bullies in world cricket these days. Nevertheless a nation will be devastated and their sporting gods reassessed. Kohli, sumptuous player though he is, now has scores of 9, 35, 1 and 1 in the three ODI World Cup semi-finals and final that he has played.
Credit to India’s captain however. The face of anger and despair that he had worn during India’s innings was gone after the game and he spoke well, saying: ”The credit has to go to the New Zealand bowlers, because with the new ball they were outstanding. The skill level was clear to everyone and they made life very difficult for the batsman.
“It’s a game of margins. We’ve played such good cricket, and 45 minutes of bad cricket puts you out of the tournament. It’s difficult to accept, it’s difficult to come to terms with, but, look, New Zealand deserve it. They were sharper – and braver – when it came to the crunch moments.”
Will New Zealand change a winning team for the final. Everything suggests that is not Williamson’s way. He and Stead have got one big decision right in this World Cup. The selection and faith in Henry has paid huge dividends when it mattered most. The captain and coach take great credit for that.
But to their detriment New Zealand have only changed their batting order once, bringing in Henry Nicholls for Colin Munro. The conservatism of this approach has been an abject failure. The openers have been utterly ineffective. Martin Guptill is a fine one day player on good surfaces when he can hit through the line, but as soon as the ball is moving, he is found out. It happened in test matches and it has happened at this World Cup.
Tom Blundell came into this tournament averaging nearly 70 in the five one-dayers he had played against Australia, India and the West Indies and he had a century in English conditions. But we haven’t seen him in the tournament. Surely there is a case for pushing Tom Latham up the order, where he scored a double century in a test match not so long ago, and giving Blundell the gloves and a middle order place.
I can’t see it happening. Kohli said you had to be flexible to win this tournament and his flexibility was fully justified by the selection of Jadeja who was quite outstanding in India’s losing cause. If the conditions at Lord’s suggest significant new ball movement, then New Zealand’s batting lineup has to change. Just because New Zealand won against India, don’t make the mistake of thinking they did all the right things in selection and tactics. That is kindergarten philosophy.
Williamson has a third of the team’s runs in this World Cup and Taylor has a goodly share of the rest. New Zealand’s bowlers have been magnificent. The captain has been astute. Williamson smothered India with bat and mind. For the first time New Zealand are in a World cup final away from home
But can New Zealand make the last big leap of thought and deed to win a Cricket World Cup for the first time? I remember how the New Zealanders turned to Brathwaite in his hour of despair in the round robin game against West Indies. This is a team that plays cricket with real spirit. Can it also be a team that makes the big, brave final decision that may be necessary to win a World Cup?
One thing is certain. If it is to be Australia in the final, the whole world will be behind Kane Williamson and New Zealand.
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