MANCHESTER: They suffered a hat-trick of losses, but New Zealand have done it. They are World Cup finalists for a second straight time. Surprised? Well, don’t be. New Zealand are the masters of defending low totals – they haven’t scored 300 yet – and they proved it yet again by defending 240 against the No. 1 team on the league stage, the hot favourites, the batting juggernaut, that is India.
Very few, if not nobody, gave New Zealand much of a chance against India in the semi-final of the World Cup. Heck, Ian Chappell even predicted a repeat of an India-Australia final and Sachin Tendulkar wished MS Dhoni luck for “two more” matches after India finishes the league stage. Can they be blamed, considering how New Zealand’s campaign skidded off the road having gone unbeaten after the first six matches? Maybe not. But here’s what people tend to forget. New Zealand are a bloody good side, a team full of nice blokes who turn ruthless on the field.
For a team whose batting has remained a major concern throughout the tournament, the way they responded from 1/1 was awe-inspiring. And later, with the ball, to reduce India’s top three – Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli for a total of three runs between them, phenomenal. Scrapping, dragging back, crawling… call it whatever. Just do not… do not count New Zealand out.
It rained on Tuesday, Wednesday morning was cloudy. New Zealand ended up scored 239, a total they were reasonably happy with but one which not many backed them to defend. Rahul, Rohit and Kohli have scored almost 1500 collective runs in the World Cup 2019. And then Trent Boult and Matt Henry were handed the ball, in scenarios preferred. Overhead skies, movement in the air and a bit of nip off the surface. Boult has had a history of troubling India – his last three outings against them read 5/21, 3/39 and 4/33, and on the day of the big semi-final, which lasted over 28 hours and a half, Boult and his new-ball partner Matt Henry seized the moment.
The surface wasn’t green; just a bit of moisture in the air. There wasn’t any signs of banana swing either. It was just plain, penetrative bowling. Those first 45 minutes where they left India’s batsmen clueless how the ball swung and seamed across 22 yards, the match was New Zealand’s there itself. Rumour has it that if you expose India’s dependency on their top-order nine out of ten times, their batsmen could be found wanting. It would be unfair to say that Wednesday wasn’t that one instance because if you have the opposition down at 5/3, there is hardly any scope of recovery.
It wasn’t too long ago that New Zealand had India tottering at 18/4 against them in Wellington during the bilateral series in February. Kohli did not even feature in the playing XI but India got to 252 while batting first. The two people who bailed them out of trouble were Ambati Rayudu and Vijay Shankar. One was injured (or was he) and the other has retired. India had Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya at 24/4, but hey, these things don’t repeat that frequently, do they?
No bowler is more skillful at making a ball move more than Boult, while Matt Henry by now, knows just what he has to do. For someone who’s coming off three consecutive centuries, to get him out cheaply requires a special delivery. Henry produced that, in the corridor, on a length from where the ball sways in line just that much to induce an outside edge. Boult had noticed Kohli shuffling across the stumps, and cleverly, swung the ball back into him. Out LBW. As for Rahul, Henry tempted him to his weakness – a good length ball outside off with enough movement for Rahul to poke at it.
It wasn’t until the eighth over that New Zealand allowed India to play a drive. Yes, let that sink in. An Indian batting order not playing a cover drive. That is as rare as India waiting for the 50th over to score a six – against England. And just when a partnership was beginning to form, James Neesham pulled off the most amazing catch seen in the tournament. Sheldon Cottrell, Ben Stokes have had their moments, but this one in real-time, to the naked eye, takes the cake. Neesham, following his 95 against Pakistan and five-wicket-haul against Afghanistan, ended up contributing in the field too.
If New Zealand’s pacers had done the early damage, Mitchell Santner tied India down with a crippling spell of 6-2-7-2. Santner knew he couldn’t have asked for two batsmen better than Pant and Pandya to bowl at. Pant and Pandya aren’t known to rotate strike as much as hit the ball clean. On a slow surface, Santner kept both quiet. When the pressure mounted, both top edged a slog sweep to get a move on and perished.
Here’s a story you’d want to hear. There was once this terrific hitter of the ball known as Martin Guptill. Four years ago, he had played a pivotal hand in New Zealand reaching the World Cup final. He was their leading run-scorer of the tournament and had blasted a career-best 237 against West Indies. This time around, the bat had gone silent and the runs were not coming, yet for Guptill, his skipper Kane Williamson kept gunning. But while with the bat, Guptill looked like a one-dimensional pony, he did induce the run out of MS Dhoni.
Moving on from rhyming, Williamson the captain has been as instrumental as Williamson the batsman. For cricket writers across the world, as long as Williamson is batting, they will never run short of ideas or pieces to write on him. It is no secret that New Zealand’s batting throughout the World Cup has revolved around Williamson. Take Tuesday’s game for example. New Zealand’s batsmen up against the most potent bowling line-up of all teams. Again, no surprises there. It was yet another instance of them being over-reliant on two of their most experienced and bankable guys – one, the second-best batsman after Virat Kohli since the 2015 World Cup and the other, well… one of the finest modern-day batsmen.
Against the moving white duke, New Zealand were reduced to 1/1, owing to Martin Guptill’s nightmarish run this World Cup. Who steadies the ship New Zealand, rocked by the iceberg known as Jasprit Bumrah? Williamson. The others, based on the previous three games, appear to be vulnerable, but Williamson is as steady as a rock.
The ball hardly finds the edge of his bat. It’s all from the middle. Even the dabs Williamson plays down to third man and fine leg are so under his control. The focus is razor sharp. Compare his eyes while batting to that of Kohli’s, the best batsman in the world. One set of eyes, defiant. The other, destructive. But both equally effective. Williamson held the innings, offering support to an under-fire Henry Nicholls. With the assurance of his captain, Nicholls found his feet and swept Ravindra Jadeja with control. He may have scored more than 30 percent of New Zealand’s runs this World Cup, but the belief he instils in New Zealand is not less than a 100.
This World Cup has mostly been about pairs. In fact, the four teams that have reached the semi-finals have had at least one that’s stood out. Rohit and Kohli for India, Aaron Finch and David Warner for Australia, Jofra Archer and Mark Wood for England, and Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor for New Zealand. After Williamson’s departure to Chahal, New Zealand could have easily slipped, but Taylor weathered the storm. He looked scratchy in the beginning but once he played out the testing period of spin, out came the hoicks. With New Zealand’s batting vulnerability, after Williamson, it was Taylor’s turn to hold the innings. He stayed until Day 2 of the match and only perished to a direct hit from Jadeja from the deep.
New Zealand head into the final with high spirits. After the win against India, the players and their families got together for a drink and a photograph at the Old Trafford. They’re all nice guys. Just watch them train and you’ll understand. Even when they are three losses down, they were laughing and being playful. They head into the final with certain issues that are yet to be addressed, but more importantly, New Zealand head to Lord’s with a point to prove and believing they can achieve what they missed out on during the last World Cup.