New Zealand always rises to the occasion when it comes to 50-over World Cups, where they have made it a habit of reaching the last four stage. The 2019 edition of the quadrennial tournament is no different – here they are again, in yet another semifinal.
As in every edition of the tournament, the Kiwis came to England as dark horses, and got off the blocks with three successive wins against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – and they did it their way.
In this World Cup, captains winning the toss have elected to chase 78% of the time, but Kane Williamson was an exception.
The conditions in Cardiff were ideal for bowling. Williamson put Sri Lanka in, and the Kiwi quicks bundled half the side out inside 15 overs. The lower middle order showed some fight, but it wasn’t enough. Chasing a paltry 137 for victory, the Kiwi openers went on the attack from the outset and overhauled the target inside 17 overs.
Against Bangladesh, Williamson again won the toss and inserted the opposition. The Kiwi pacers took advantage of seaming conditions to restrict Bangladesh to a modest 244. In their turn, the Kiwi openers gave a sedate start; the Bangladesh spinners reeled them back in as they tried to hit their way out of trouble, but Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor were together.
Since the 2015 World Cup, Williamson and Taylor have scored 56% of the team’s total runs. The two cashed in and stitched a 105-run partnership for the fourth wicket. Kane Williamson was finally dismissed in the 32nd over. With 85 runs to play with, the Bangla Tigers were desperate for Taylor’s wicket and once Taylor was removed for 82 in the 39th over, there seemed a possibility of an upset with New Zealand needing 54 in 11 overs with five wickets in hand and the Bangladesh spinners on song. The lower middle order predictably succumbed to spin; the game was going down to the wire, but a calm Mitchell Santner guided them to victory and saved his team from an embarrassing defeat.
The strategy to chase was working and nothing changed when they met Afghanistan. All-rounder James Neesham’s career best figures of five for 31 meant New Zealand were chasing a mere 173 for victory. Although they suffered early blows, the duo of Kane and Taylor eased them to victory by 7 wickets.
The Kiwis were lucky with the draw, that gave them early games against inferior opposition. Their real test was about to start considering, their next opposition was India. However, due to torrential rain the match was called off.
The New Zealand pace battery by then had assumed a devastating air, with the likes of Trent Boult, Matt Henry, Lockie Ferguson, James Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme providing both pace and movement. The duo of Henry and Boult was terrific in the first powerplay, and Ferguson and Neesham bossed the middle overs before Boult came back to provide the finishing touches in the death overs.
New Zealand next went up against a struggling South Africa. On a tricky Edgbaston pitch, Williamson decided to bowl first. Boult removed Quinton de Kock with a beautiful delivery which swung in late. The incoming batsmen, Faf du Plessis, was looking in good nick but Lockie’s yorker was too good for him. As the match progressed, batting became more difficult. Batsmen got starts, but failed to convert, and South Africa ended up with 241 on the board.
In response, the Kiwis found themselves reduced to 80/4 by the quality Proteas quicks. However, a typically aggressive 62 from De Grandhomme kept them in the hunt. Following his dismissal, the game went down to the last over, but Captain Kane’s composure saw them home with three balls to spare.
In their next game against West Indies, Kane’s brilliance ensured that New Zealand overcame a Carlos Brathwaite scare to win by by 5 runs. Both Kiwi openers were removed for a duck, but the ever reliable Willamson and Taylor put on 150 runs to take the Kiwis to a challenging 291.
In the chase, the West Indies were soon 20/2 before Chris Gayle and Shimron Hetmyer shifted the momentum with some attacking shots. Once they were removed in quick succession, the others fell like nine pins. And then Brathwaite stepped up with a blistering century that single-handedly brought the target down to less than 10. He failed, however, to clear the boundary by a small margin, and the Kiwis survived the scare to eke out a narrow win.
New Zealand’s bowling till then was top notch, but issues with their batting could not be hidden. After the Sri Lanka game, the openers never really flourished, and the pressure piled up on Taylor and Williamson.
This increasingly evident weakness was first exploited by Pakistan, whose teenage pacer Shaheen Afridi blew away the top order with quality seam bowling. All-rounders Neesham and de Grandhomme tried hard, but the Kiwis could only manage a below par 237. A brilliant innings from Babar Azam and a late flourish from Haris Sohail ensured that Pakistan coasted to victory by six wickets.
Things were starting to look gloomy for the men in black. The campaign which had started on a bright note suddenly looked jittery. And predictably, the Kiwis suffered successive losses to Australia and England. The draw, that had initially favoured them with match-ups against weaker opposition, was now their enemy; the back end of the league phase saw them go up against the top teams. They sneaked into the semifinal ahead of Pakistan, with whom they were level on 11 points each, with a better net run-rate.
The issues with the Kiwis have become increasingly apparent as the tournament has progressed – and, having entered the semifinal, they now face the one team they hadn’t played in the league thanks to a wash-out – an India in red hot form. Before the Kiwis face off against the all-round excellence of one of the tournament favourites, they have to find a way to solve their batting issues, if last year’s losing finalists are to repeat that performance, or better it.