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The flaw in New Zealand’s plan

Last updated on 03 Nov 2023 | 09:04 AM
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The flaw in New Zealand’s plan

There is a huge hole in New Zealand’s bowling unit, and it is derailing their campaign

When the World Cup began, James Neesham was averaging 260 with the ball at an economy of 6.34 since 2022. In the World Cup, Neesham has brought his average down to a still-not-respectable 78.5. The economy has jumped to a far from respectable 10.8. This is the worst among bowlers who have bowled more than one over in the competition. 

Now, this is not all Neesham’s fault. Six out of his 14.3 overs in the World Cup have been at the death. These have been at an eye-watering economy of 15.7. New Zealand started their first game against England with only three frontline bowlers. Against Australia, they lost Lockie Ferguson during the game. Furthermore, Tom Latham lost all confidence in Matt Henry such that he bowled only 6.2 overs in the game when New Zealand were already a bowler down. Neesham bowled two at the death that day and went for 32. 

If this was not enough, New Zealand lost Henry against South Africa with 4.3 overs still remaining from his quota. Neesham was once again the death bowler, going for 48 in his three. 

The reality is that Neesham was never a death bowler. In a career spanning almost a decade now, he has bowled only 17.7% of his overs at the death overs of an ODI innings. These have come at an economy of 8.6. Since Neesham’s ODI debut, among the 69 bowlers from Test-playing nations and with 50+ overs in this phase, only five bowlers have had an economy worse than the right-armer in the last ten overs. And only one of them is an active cricketer: Jason Holder (8.7).

In most teams, if not all, Neesham would have been a sixth bowler at best. But New Zealand’s first XI had him as a proper fifth bowler. Confusing right? But let us turn back to the first game against England. Had Kane Williamson been fit, he would have started ahead of Rachin Ravindra. That means New Zealand were expecting a majority of the ten overs from the fifth bowler's quota from Neesham or Mark Chapman, depending on who started at number seven in the XI. Assisted by Glenn Phillips and Daryl Mitchell as the two other options. 

But if that is the case, Chapman started in five games but has never gotten to bowl even once. Mitchell has bowled only one over in the competition. It was against Bangladesh and went for 11 runs. This is bizarre given he was bowling 4-5 an innings regularly this year ahead of the World Cup and took nine wickets at a very good average of 21.3. 

With six wickets at an average of 25.8 and an economy of 5.3, New Zealand’s saving grace in the tournament has been Phillips. But it is nothing more than accidental. New Zealand would have never seen Phillips as the silver bullet given he has doubled his ODI wickets tally during the World Cup, which stood at six wickets at an average of 39.7 and an economy of 6.4 when the tournament began. 

Phillips played three ODIs in India before the World Cup but he never bowled in any of them. He was brought into the attack as an after-thought during the England game while Joe Root and Jos Buttler were taking the game away from the Kiwis. Root and Moeen Ali perished while trying to treat him with disrespect. Even after turning the game on its head in Ahmedabad, Phillips bowled only 2 or 3 overs in New Zealand’s first five games before the Australia clash. 

With no options left to stem the carnage, Latham turned to Phillips in Dharamshala. And quite bizarrely, none of the Australians could take him on. David Warner scored five runs off 13 balls against him. Mitchell Marsh scored a depressing 10 off 23. 

By the time of the South Africa clash, Phillips became Latham’s go-to fifth bowler. He was brought on ahead of Ravindra, who bowled only two overs. Phillips started well with only 14 off his first four overs. But first Rassie van der Dussen and later David Miller took him apart, hitting 38 of his last three. While against a team with batters historically feeble against spin, Phillips more than stood out. Against a team looking to smash every kind of bowling coming their way, Phillips was humbled. And New Zealand’s lack of a potent fifth bowler was exposed. 

Now, it is fair to assume that even if Williamson had been fit throughout, New Zealand would have given Ravindra a go at some point. And given how he has been the only consistent batter for the Kiwis, he would have become a regular. But even his presence would not have allowed New Zealand to fill the fifth bowler hole. 

With the ball, Ravindra’s returns have been a sombre three wickets in 51 overs at an average of 104 and an economy of 6.1. All his three wickets have been right-handers. But these have come at an average of 75 and an economy of 5.8. So, he has not been a good match-up bowler either.

The biggest flaw in New Zealand’s plan was not to have a proper fifth bowler in the first place. Their Plan A, B, and C were to have two-three bowlers chip in with a few overs. This meant that they hoped their four frontline bowlers would all have only good days. 

And if not, a batting-heavy XI will be able to bail them out. Neither of which turned out as per the plan. Even without mid-match injuries, Trent Boult has struggled to pick new-ball wickets. Their batters barring Ravindra and Mitchell have failed to step up in big games.

When New Zealand were facing light-weight oppositions towards the beginning of their campaign, the flaw was hidden. It got brutally exposed against better teams. After being the front-runners for the semi-final spot in the first two weeks, the Kiwis suddenly find themselves facing two do-or-die games. No team is ever prepared for injuries during the game. Most title contenders, however, are not as ill-prepared as New Zealand.

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