Coming into this World Cup, New Zealand’s statistics were unenviable – 42 wins and 39 losses in 88 matches with 5 ties and 2 yielding no result. They had won just 11 of their 25 World T20 encounters previously – only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh had fewer victories among ICC Full Members. Moreover, they had lost 8 matches out of 16 playing in the subcontinent.
McCullum’s departure and the apparent void left by him
The leading run scorer in T20 internationals, Brendon McCullum, had bid adieu to international cricket a few weeks earlier, and the loss of New Zealand’s best limited-overs cricketer was a colossal blow before a tournament as this. The boots were far too big for young Kane Williamson; even seniors like Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill were way behind when it came to quality, setting examples and fuelling inspiration.
It was too easy, therefore, to write the Kiwis off. They hadn’t gone past the group stage since the inaugural World T20 in 2007, and with an apparently weak squad on paper this year, it was expected to be only a matter of time before they returned home from the ‘group of death’.
But then Mike Hesson had something else in mind. With the odds firmly set against them, the Black Caps registered a sizeable victory against favorites India and went on to follow that with surprising wins against their trans-Tasmanian neighbors and Pakistan. While half the world scratched their heads in utter confusion, New Zealand silently progressed to the semi-finals as the first team to do so.
Prior to this event, Nathan McCullum’s opinion about New Zealand possessing a balanced side and not having to worry about his brother’s absence had been dismissed as something every senior team member says on record. That his optimism was not misplaced became a realization only when the likes of Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi had reduced the world’s most feared batting side into a pack of cards.
How the Kiwis championed inexperience and scripted success
It’s not surprising that Sodhi and Santner are relatively unheard of. Each has played only 8 T20Is so far and has been around for less than a year. Neither has the statistics to suggest extraordinary quality; they have never played an IPL match and have zero experience in these conditions.
Yet, they have been prominent architects in the last three victories for New Zealand – a fact that is as much bewildering as intriguing. Sodhi’s trust in his flight, which perilously borders on over-reliance at times, produced splendid results at Nagpur, as did Santner’s crafty left-arm spin. The skipper’s immensely daring decision of playing three spinners against the Indians at home turned out to be a masterstroke in no time.
New Zealand’s talent pool is not spilling over, but it’s not completely dry either. Apart from Luke Ronchi and Williamson himself, they have a couple of hard-hitters in Colin Munro and Henry Nicholls. A tradition of all-rounders serving them well has given birth to Corey Anderson, Grant Elliott and Santner. Even the fast-bowling department spearheaded by Tim Southee and Trent Boult seems decent enough.
However, only half the squad can brag about having played in the subcontinent previously. While any other team would have been liable to get bogged down by the lack of familiarity with the conditions, New Zealand have adapted magnificently within the few days. They are inexperienced, sure, but not naïve.
Williamson proving to be the right one at the helm
The strategy has been pretty simple – win the toss, put runs on the board, exploit the conditions. In the part of the world where the nature of grounds tend to play a decisive role in the outcome of a match, 25-year-old Williamson’s game plan and team selection have been governed by his impeccable reading of the situations.
If beating India at their own game was praiseworthy, the full extent of the Kiwi captain’s tactical nous was on display against the Australians at Dharamsala. He waited till the end of the powerplay to bring the spinners into the attack in order to minimize the number of boundaries in the first six overs. Backed by his skipper, Sodhi continued an attacking line and length, taking the ball away from the right-handers. He finished his four overs conceding 16 runs for 1 wicket.
Meanwhile, Williamson being an off-spinner himself, rolled his arms at southpaws David Warner and Usman Khawaja restricting them from trying to work the ball easily on the leg-side. Mitchell McClenaghan, brought in for Nathan McCullum, dealt the final blow with 3/17 that earned him the man of the match award.
Team effort propelling New Zealand forward
This precisely has been the case for New Zealand throughout – someone somewhere has always stepped up for the team when the stakes were high. Take the match against Pakistan for instance. Sharjeel Khan was looking to upset Guptill’s party until Adam Milne dismissed him and put an end to the ominous-looking opening partnership. Santner then returned to complete his quota with 2/29 overall after having conceded 15 in the first over.
The Kiwis have already won three out of three without even fielding their specialist pacemen – Boult and Southee. While that can be attributed to Williamson’s figuring out that the two would be hardly useful on slow wickets as these, it is spectacular to fathom the way sheer team effort, and not individual brilliance, has taken them to unanticipated glories.
The new skipper is not McCullum – nor does he pretend to be – but he reads the game and devises strategies as well as the latter. With that to bank on and an uncomplicated approach to the game, Williamson is inspiring the team to achievements silently but surely.
New Zealand may not go the entire distance – or they may, for cricket is a sport of glorious uncertainties – but with every man in the team giving his best when he is needed to, they are certainly winning hearts at this T20 World Cup. After an eternity of individual brilliance and one-man shows, the Black Caps seem to be finally here to reestablish cricket as it originally was – a team game.