As a statement of intent, Friday’s eight-wicket win against England was just about as impressive as it gets. I cannot remember a match where, in the first innings, the ball dominated the bat so completely and then the situation was so completely reversed when the sides switched over, and all credit to Brendon McCullum and his players for the job they did. Aside from saving the electricity bill by finishing a match that was scheduled as a day-night encounter long before the sun went down, there was so much to like about the way New Zealand went about their work.
McCullum’s posting of four slips at one stage was an expression of dominance that must have given England’s batsmen a real inferiority complex. Tim Southee bossed the opposition batting and then McCullum applied the finishing touches with as clinical and brutal a display of power hitting as you are likely to see. The captain was able to play with that freedom because he knew, as did the unfortunate England bowlers, that the pitch was basically a very good one and you do not win too many One-Day Internationals defending 123.
But the manner of his batting meant his New Zealand team left the ground feeling like giants while England’s players left well and truly with their tails between their legs. Incidentally, I do not believe that McCullum’s field settings, with massed ranks of catchers in place, was disrespectful, arrogant or an act of showing off. True, it was done to make the opponents believe they were being dominated, but if we are seeing dominance asserted in that way rather than through verbal or physical taunts then there is not too much wrong with the game.
And it is one thing to set fields like that; it is quite another to have bowlers to back it up and, in Tim Southee and Trent Boult in particular, McCullum had just the men for the job. They bowled beautifully and Southee’s second spell was just about as good as it gets. On a pitch that looked pretty flat, to boss the game in the way he did was sensational.
It was an illustration of the confidence he and the whole team are feeling at the moment and that was emphasised by the way McCullum then came out with the bat. You can criticise England all you like but I hope New Zealand still gets due recognition for that effort. It is one to celebrate for not only the team but also the New Zealand fans, and it will further kindle the fire of expectation that has been rising for some time.
You could argue that such increased expectation is not necessarily a good thing as that, in turn, creates pressure, but I do not see it that way. The team is playing with such confidence that as long as they embrace that expectation and channel it as they have been doing to produce confident cricket full of belief then they can feed off it. I saw that today and it means we are now set for an absolute blockbuster next weekend at Eden Park when Australia comes calling.
The likelihood is that the match will decide top spot in the pool and with the possibility that Ireland could go through from the other pool in fourth spot, then, with no disrespect to the Irish, that is a great incentive for both sides to do well in the Trans-Tasman clash. The performance against England put to bed any suggestion of a wobble in New Zealand’s campaign, something that they may have been accused off after losing seven wickets in the chase to overcome Scotland’s modest target in Dunedin a few days earlier. For the record, I did not subscribe to the view that the Scotland chase was a poor effort.
Yes, more wickets were lost than was ideal but what I took from that batting effort was a team-first mentality of players going in and backing themselves to push the accelerator in an attempt to win the match as quickly as possible. When all is said and done, a win is a win, whether it is by eight wickets, as was the case against England, or three wickets in the Scotland game. You still get the same number of points for both.
And with confidence flowing through the New Zealand camp there will be massive belief they can catch Australia cold when the sides go head to head. The fixtures have given the Black Caps the chance to get some rhythm and routine while, for Australia, a rainy time in Brisbane after a week’s break following the comprehensive win over England means they are yet to find that rhythm through no fault of their own. Add to that the fact that Michael Clarke will be on the comeback trail and you have the ingredients to make for a mouthwatering contest – and a particularly testing one for Australia.
And although I know it is never good to look too far ahead, it will now be difficult for New Zealand, with three wins under their belt, to avoid contemplating the prospect of the knock-out stages as, although the match against Australia is massive, that quarter-final is the next big hurdle to be overcome. The team could keep playing this well, and even beat Australia next weekend, but all it will take is one bad day once the knock-outs arrive and it will be all over. I remember it happened to South Africa in the 1996 tournament played under the same format when, after a dominant display in the first stage, they were on the receiving end of a Brian Lara hundred and suddenly found themselves watching the climax of the tournament on television.
New Zealand will be conscious of that scenario and will want to avoid it but for now they have earned the right to bask in the glory of a sublime display against England and to put their feet up ahead of the clash with Australia.
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