“New Zealand team punches above their weight” is perhaps the most overused line to describe that country’s cricket team.
New Zealand has made the last four eight times in twelve editions and made the finals twice in the last two editions, so perhaps it is worth asking: Exactly what is this “weight” the Kiwis are supposed to be punching above?
One reason for the constant undervaluing of the Kiwis could be that they go about their business without the fuss and hype attached to the likes of Australia, England and India; another is the suggestion that the side lacks attention-getting superstars and therefore the consequent media attention – but the latter assessment is to ignore that the Kiwis have always had superstars, from Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe to Shane Bond and Brendon McCullum down to Trent Boult and Kane Williamson in the present lineup.
So maybe it is just the power of repetitive narrative – we keep saying the Kiwis are the underdogs, that they “punch above their weight”, so often that it has become universal truth.
The characteristic that has enabled the New Zealand teams of the past and present to give this characterization the lie is their ability to adapt. This is exemplified by the success of the team in global events across various continents and conditions.
The New Zealand team in the 2019 World Cup managed to do ‘just enough’ in most of the games of the tournament. They beat the weaker teams by big margins to swell their net run rate, managed to cross the line against tougher opponents like the West Indies and South Africa.
When it came to the knock outs, again, they did “just enough”. Where the pundits said the Kiwis would need a score close to the 300 mark to test the strong Indian lineup, the Kiwis decided that on that day, on that wicket, 240 would do – and, as Williamson said during the post match conference, they figured it out in the middle, while they were batting. And they proved to be dead right.
They carried the same approach into the finals and scored ‘just enough’ runs in the 1st innings – the one stumbling block being they did not hit ‘just enough’ boundaries.
Best Bowling unit in the tournament
The above graphic representation sums up cricket in general- the strategic correlation of the importance of building pressure by controlling runs vis a vis getting wickets.
A six-pronged NZ attack comprised of a world class bowler in Boult; a bowler who will keep pitching the bowl in right areas in Matt Henry; a guy to keep you on the backfoot with his searing pace in Lockie Ferguson; handy part time medium pacers in James Neesham and Colin De Grandhomme; and an accurate spinner who relies on keeping it tight over displaying his skills in Mitchell Santner. This bowling unit was head and shoulders above any other in this tournament. With the average experience of just 47 ODIs between them at the beginning of the tournament, this was the only attack that looked capable of defending 241 on the night of the final.
Going by the numbers, the New Zealand bowling attack leads others on all parameters – best economy (4.89), least runs conceded per wicket (27.86), least balls delivered per wicket (36.75) and the highest dot ball percentage (54.7%).
When we look at batting performance in parallel to the bowling performance, we begin to understand the cricketing dynamics and the flaw in judgement while assigning importance to the two primary facets of the game:
All the cricketing powerhouses in the world often fail to understand that no matter what form of cricket you are playing, the batsmen win you games but bowlers win you trophies. The New Zealand team, written off in the semis first and again in the final, almost won the trophy if not for the institutional bias towards the batsmen that led to unbelievable, almost laughable rule of deciding a tied cricket match based on the number of boundaries hit.
A team that is lagging on every parameter mandatory to assess batting in limited overs went almost all the way - whereas Bangladesh, to take one example, was a team whose batsmen did everything you could ask for, but fell well short in the qualification race owing to the lack of control and accuracy their bowlers could offer.
O Captain! My Captain!
Every once in a while, a sport is graced by a being that makes us feel privileged to be witness. Kane Williamson is one such sportsmen. In an era when cricket is increasingly being driven by economics and dominated by attacking players - in both personality and style - Kane is a breath of fresh air.
As a captain, we will fall short of superlatives while describing the brilliance of Kane in this tournament. Field positions, bowling changes, a plan for every batsmen - Kane was spot on. When Eoin Morgan came in to bat at 59/2 until the time he got out with the team score at 86, he had just two fielders on the boundary for a better part of his innings – deep fine leg and deep square leg; the rest were all inside the circle on the off side. Defending 241, this is as attacking as it can be. Even during the semis, a mediocre total was made to look daunting by the aggressive filed placing that accompanied tight bowling.
While Kane’s field settings were hyper aggressive, his body language both on and off the field radiated an almost yogic sense of calm – a stark contrast to the demonstrative captains who go through more expressions in the space of a single over than a Salman Khan uses in his lifetime. Television fetishes the latter because they make for good spectacle, but Kane is valuable simply because he is almost not there – you don’t notice what he does, you only see the results. Humble in victory and graceful in defeat, Kane is every bit of the ‘gentleman’ for whom this sport was meant to be.
As a batsman, he along with Shakib Al Hasan have been the best number threes in the whole tournament. Two batsmen with every different styles literally carried their teams throughout the tournament.
In every single game, the opposition had to tear down the wall that Kane had built around his wicket in order to restrict the entire New Zealand batting unit. Though not scoring at brisk pace, primarily because of the fall of wickets at the other end and slow pitches towards the latter half of the tournament, Kane managed to score ‘just enough’ runs for his team.
The Achilles Heel
It is cruel to pin point things that could have been better for a team that had one hand on the trophy. A team that did almost everything the game of cricket demands only to lose out on the aspect that was never a part of their plan. The NZ batting unit scored 41% of their total runs in boundaries, and hit boundaries on around 7.5% of the balls they faced, the least among all the teams in the tournament. It is bizarre, almost unacceptable that game based on the overall runs scored rather than the manner in which they are scored had to be decided on the number of boundaries hit, that too in a World Cup Final.
On the same evening, around four miles away from the Lord’s stadium, Novak Djokovic managed to do ‘just enough’ to resist the barrage of Federer’s attacking shots to win a title for himself. The story could have been different if that match was decided on the number of winners hit rather than the basic theory of points that tennis was built on.
While we are at it, it is imperative to mention that the New Zealand batting was far from world class in the entire tournament. They have a dot ball percentage of around 51%, which is better than only the West Indies – a team relies on the hitting ability of their batsmen, and Afghanistan. If we take out Williamson’s contribution with the bat, the others collectively have an average of 24 and a strike rate of 79, both better than only Afghanistan. And yet, despite all the statistics, New Zealand did ‘just enough’ in every single game – including the final; a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
If this tournament was anything like what was predicted – an extended T20 game with teams scoring 350 for fun - one can assume that the New Zealand team might have struggled. However, the one thing that the professional cricketers from the island fringing the Tasman Sea has taught everybody is to not underrate their ability to adapt.