Not for the first time, the New Zealand cricket team(s) entered an ICC World tournament as underdogs. Despite reaching the final of last year’s ODI World Cup, the Kiwis were not highly favored here. Largely because the World Cup last year was mostly played in home conditions. The one match they played away (the final, at Melbourne), they lost. Secondly, Brendon McCullum has retired, which meant that Kane Williamson had under him an array of players not as explosive as Baz. Third, this is the sub-continent, and New Zealand has gone through horrific times in Bangladesh and India earlier. Over the last few years though, they have won in UAE (against Pakistan) and in Sri Lanka.
Moreover, the New Zealand women’s cricket team entered as underdogs too. One week and six matches later, both teams have a 100% record, and are the first teams this year through to the semifinals. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Here’s why:
– New Zealand started the tournament against home favorites India, and adjusted to the horrid low pitch of Nagpur better by dropping Trent Boult and Tim Southee, and playing three spinners. A masterstroke that bowled out India for 79. If nobody had heard of Mitchell Santner, the left-arm off-spinner, before this tournament, everyone had by now.
– New Zealand then defended a low total against the all-round Australians, smothering them again with spin, with Santner once again coming to the fore. The shell-shocked Australians, who talked big before the game, failed to finish off against Ish Sodhi, Corey Anderson and Santner, thus establishing New Zealand as this year’s darlings once again. Not one superstar, but such a wildly efficient team.
– With eight wickets in three matches, Santner has turned out to be the kind of surprise that Kiwi pace bowler Geoff Elliot was back in the 1999 World Cup. An economy of less than six proves that he is doing what R. Ashwin can’t – both, restricting as well as taking wickets. An inspired selection by Williamson.
– With five wickets in three matches, Ish Sodhi is to Santner what Ravindra Jadeja should be to Ashwin. Most importantly, Sodhi has gone for less than five an over – an unbelievable return, considering the Kiwis have played on two batting pitches out of three.
– Martin Guptill has scored his 125 runs at a strike rate of 162. Who needs McCullum when the tall man is in the form of his life? And to think, he could barely reach double figures against Australia a few months ago. His outstanding attacking innings of 80 set the tone against a strong Pakistani bowling attack, as he never let the run rate fall below eight despite their loss of Williamson and Colin Munro in quick succession.
– New Zealand seems to be the only team that has read pitches and conditions correctly, and backed it with homework. For example, even though the ploy failed against Sharjeel Khan, they opened with Santner – after seeing Khan look like a sitting duck against Ashwin at Eden Gardens a few days ago. They then didn’t concede a single boundary in the last five overs, when Pakistan were chasing and in with a chance, keeping world-class players like Umar Akmal and Shoaib Malik in chains, frustrated and looking like shadows of themselves. Milne, Santner, Sodhi and Mitchell McClenaghan did the job in the end overs with machine accuracy.
– With only Bangladesh left to face, the Kiwis are assured to top their group and face the second-placed team of the other group, either South Africa or England.
Don’t be surprised if you see Boult play in the next game – as a “backup” bowler to remind the world why he is so highly rated, and how New Zealand won’t fear to not play him if conditions don’t support him. Perhaps Pakistan can take a leaf or two out of this book, after insisting on playing all their four pacers in their first three games, irrespective of conditions.