The point of a round robin league is that each team will have played all others before the knock-out stage – and yet, ironically, the first semifinal features two teams that have not faced each other in the league, thanks to a washout on June 13.
At that point, both sides were undefeated, and the clash could well have had implications that would ramify on the points table. In the event, the Kiwis take on India 26 days after that first scheduled appointment, and with not points but a place in the final riding on the outcome.
India enter the game as favourites, while New Zealand lost momentum thanks to three defeats in their last three league games, in course of which their batting weaknesses have been exposed. In their last three defeats, they lost half their side for 83 against Pakistan, and managed just 118 against Australia and 123 against England around the 30 over mark.
Skipper, Kane Williamson has been holding the batting together almost single-handedly. He is the highest run-scorer for New Zealand in this World Cup, amassing 481 runs including two match-winning hundreds. The worrisome number for the Kiwis is that their second highest run-scorer in the tournament, Ross Taylor, has only scored 261 runs. The huge gap between their best batsman and the rest is hard to ignore.
New Zealand’s batting on either side of Williamson has been brittle. Martin Guptill averages 39.3 this year - his lowest in a year since 2014. His average in this World Cup drops down further, to 23.7. Colin Munro, out of the XI in the last two games, has managed only 25.3 runs per dismissal. Henry Nicholls, Munro’s replacement, has scored a grand total of eight runs in the two games where he opened. As a result, New Zealand is going through horrendous starts with the bat.
Guptill and Munro added an unbeaten 137 runs in the Blackcaps’ 10-wicket victory over Sri Lanka in the opening game of their World Cup campaign. If you take that out of equation, the average of New Zealand’s opening stands drops alarmingly to 11.85 runs per match.
An underperforming middle-order has also contributed to New Zealand’s woes in the latter half of the league stage. Ross Taylor came to the World Cup with a batting average of 82.13 between January 1, 2018 to the start of the World Cup - second only to Virat Kohli’s 95.4. During the Cup, however, he has averaged a mere 37.2, an underwhelming performance by his standards.
The batsmen who come after him -- Tom Latham, James Neesham and Colin de Gradhomme – are yet to establish themselves in international cricket, and their under par form has reflected on the side’s batting outcomes.
The mode of dismissals will be worrying the Kiwis even more than the lack of runs -- Ross Taylor has been caught down the leg-side twice and Martin Guptill once; the latter has also been dismissed hit-wicket. Kane Williamson was run out at the non-striker’s end while backing too far against England. Long story short, the Kiwi batsmen, particularly the chief architects of many of their recent past victories, have found unusual ways to get dismissed. In a knock-out game, such lapses in concentration will prove fatal against an unforgiving Indian side.
New Zealand’s bowling has however been a huge positive. The side has been amongst the best bowling units in this World Cup in terms of bowling average and strike-rate, though it needs adding that the Indian unit is not far behind.
New Zealand has the bowling arsenal to upset the Indian batting lineup, the key to which is Rohit Sharma. The Indian opener has already broken Kumar Sangakkara’s record for most hundreds in a World Cup edition, and is 27 runs away from going past Sachin Tendulkar’s record tally of most runs in a World Cup (673 runs in 2003). Trent Boult will have to take on the onus of knocking over the ace Indian opener, as he did in the warm-up game.
The British Met Department has forecasted the semifinal to begin under cloud cover, and the conditions in Manchester are expected to be similar to when New Zealand defeated India in the warm-up game. Then, New Zealand had bowled out India for a paltry 179. Though the trend in the second half of this World Cup has been overwhelmingly in favour of the side batting first, Kane Williamson want to insert if cloudy conditions prevail and he wins the toss. Equally, Virat Kohli will likely be keen to insert, and unleash his bowlers against the struggling New Zealand batting.
At Old Trafford, a ground which has produced the highest score of this World Cup (397 by England against Afghanistan), it can come down to winning the game with the ball in the first half of the game.
Kuldeep Yadav has been the only player from India’s first choice XI from the first half of the league stage who has failed to impress as the sun came out and pitches got drier. On the other hand, Ravindra Jadeja came back into the playing eleven with a spirited bowling performance against Sri Lanka. Yuzvendra Chahal has been expensive, but has picked 11 wickets, which may lead to his being preferred to Yadav. Mohammed Shami, who has picked 14 wickets in this tournament, may also come back replacing Dinesh Karthik, who does not add much value batting in the lower middle-order.
Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli (c), Rishabh Pant, MS Dhoni (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal
The Kiwis must be pleased to have Lockie Ferguson fit to play the semifinal after missing the league game against England due to a tight hamstring. He may replace Tim Southee. Southee’s record against Rohit Sharma makes a case for his presence in the XI, but the bowling figures of 1 for 70 against England may likely lead to his being left out. Another decision for the management to make is if they want to continue with Henry Nicholls at the top of the order or go back to Colin Munro, both of whom are struggling.
Colin Munro, Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson (c), Ross Taylor, Tom Latham (wk), James Neesham, Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner, Matt Henry, Lockie Ferguson, Trent Boult