August 14, 2020, 4:49

New Zealand ignore script to make second World Cup final

New Zealand ignore script to make second World Cup final

Four years on from the heartbreak of their defeat at the MCG, New Zealand are preparing for another World Cup final.

This was not meant to happen.

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In 2015, it all made sense. With Brendon McCullum, the inspirational leader, at the helm they were playing a brilliantly bold style of cricket. They were the team to watch, the great entertainers aiming to win their first World Cup at a home tournament.

It all sounds rather familiar.

This time around though, New Zealand’s progress to the semi-finals was altogether more low-key. No team was built more in its captain’s image than New Zealand in 2015 and that may well be true again this year.

Under Kane Williamson, New Zealand may not possess the same flair or explosiveness in their play but they remain a highly watchable side, albeit it in a quieter, understated but ruthlessly efficient way.

It is an approach that saw them labelled ‘dark horses’ – again – coming into the tournament and so it was no surprise that they were top as the group stage approached its conclusion. They had won all the games they were expected to with minimal fuss and a semi-final place was all-but secured.

But by the same token, it was no great shock that they were beaten by a rampant Pakistan and then limped to defeats by Australia and England. They still qualified – just – and in finishing fourth, they pretty much matched expectations.

Going into the World Cup, most people would have said New Zealand were the fourth best side in the competition, a few might have had them third ahead of an unproven Australia side and some might have put them fifth behind one of Pakistan, South Africa or West Indies, but the general consensus was fourth. Semi-finalists.

Given the players at their disposal, not least Williamson, one of the world’s leading batsmen, who has consistently shown himself to be a player who thrives on the big stage, and Trent Boult, the No 2 ranked bowler in ODI cricket and as threatening with the new ball as just about anyone in the modern game, the slight surprise is that no one took them more seriously.

A large part of that is undoubtedly due to the quality of the two sides ahead of them in the ICC ODI rankings, England and India, but then even Australia were talked up as potential winners more than the Kiwis.

After a disappointing end to the group stage, if Williamson was after a way to motivate his side for the semi-final at Old Trafford, he needn’t have bothered. That was being done for him by pundits around the world discussing how keen Australia and India would be to top the group and avoid England in the semis. The implication being that New Zealand were the easier opponent.

No one suggested they would be pushovers but the reality is that very few expected them to reach the final either. A semi-final defeat was no disgrace, well done India, good luck in the final.

India versus Australia or England in the final at Lord’s. Lovely, just as it was meant to be.

Expect, having been set just 240 to win in Manchester, Virat Kohli and co received a rude awakening. If reducing a batting line-up as strong as India’s to 5-3 in a World Cup semi-final doesn’t make people sit up and take notice then nothing will.

Arguably as impressive as that staggering start though was the way New Zealand kept their cool as India threatened to fightback and undo all of their fine early work. There was no panic, they stuck to their game plan and got the job done.

This New Zealand team is never going to be one to blow its own trumpet but having vanquished India, others are starting to do it for them.

Matt Henry has shown himself to be a fine partner for Boult with the new ball, Lockie Ferguson has the express pace to unsettle even the most assured of batsmen, Martin Guptill is a one-man wrecking ball at the top of the order and is long overdue a big score while Ross Taylor is a model of class and experience at No 4.

Williamson, though, is the unassuming star of this unassuming team. They play in his image and while they may have made fewer headlines along the way than four years ago, New Zealand are back in the World Cup final.


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