The end might not have been pretty – apart from the winning six by Kane Williamson, which produced a wave of relief around Eden Park – but New Zealand will take the win, take the positives, and take the lessons too. Any victory against Australia is something to savour and this was no exception, even allowing for that late collapse that reduced the vast majority of the packed house to near silence. But as a statement of intent with the ball, the Black Caps showed once again they have every right to be considered one of the top contenders for this World Cup because that bowling effort was special.
You could argue Tim Southee was a little loose early on when Australia got away to a flier and you could also argue that Michael Clarke’s side batted like players looking for form and confidence at the crease after two weeks without a game. But the quality and aggression of the New Zealand’s attack was a joy to see, and even better was the fact that, with Southee struggling just a little, Trent Boult stepped up and produced an outstanding display. That is the sign of a very good side, that when one player is off his game, another can step up, and Boult’s display was top-drawer.
The late wobble that saw five wickets fall for 15 runs at one stage was tough to watch – we Kiwis never believe in doing things easily – but it may actually serve to temper the euphoria and keep a lid on the confidence that has been sweeping across the country on the back of the side’s performances. The mood of belief among the public was best reflected by the chant that rang around Eden Park as Brendon McCullum was charging towards his 21-ball half century. “You’re worse than England”, shouted the fans at the Australia players and I had to stop and laugh at that, as I have never heard anything like that before from a New Zealand crowd.
What the collapse does is show the players and the fans that no matter how good you are, or how good you think you are, you always need to be absolutely on your game. And if you are not, especially against the very best sides, you are liable to come unstuck. In that sense, the last few overs of the game have provided a very healthy reality check.
McCullum, in particular, will be disappointed that having put Australia on the canvass, his dismissal allowed them to get up again. Allowing a side to do that now is something you can get away with; once you get to the sudden death of a quarter-final or a semi-final, you cannot afford to be so generous. In the final analysis, this match has been a useful exercise for a whole host of reasons, not least because winning breeds confidence, and winning against the top-ranked side shows the players they can go up against the best and deliver. There were a lot of question marks coming into the game about how good this New Zealand side really is and this win has provided a decent answer, that they are not out of place at the top table.
It also means New Zealand can now be considered clear favourites to top the pool, which would bring with it a quarter-final tie against the fourth-ranked side in the other half of the draw. There is plenty of water still to go under the bridge in the other pool but whoever ends up in that fourth spot will not relish a trip to Wellington for that encounter. The fact the Black Caps have now played a big match in front of such a massive and expectant crowd will also serve a purpose because when it comes to the knock-out stages the players will now know what to expect and hopefully be able to handle it accordingly.
That is important because I detected some nerves early on, but the players will be more attuned to that environment next time. What the match also demonstrated to me is that Eden Park is a bowl-first ground in this World Cup. Why? Because the short, straight boundaries make you believe if you bat first that you need a massive score given the modern players’ ability to hit the ball so cleanly so often.
But what that means is you can go too hard too early, something Australia’s batsmen were guilty of, and rather than their middle order looking to sit in when wickets began to go down, too many of the their batsmen went looking for run-scoring opportunities before getting set. If you bowl first in Auckland you get two bites at the cherry: you have the chance to put pressure on the opposition and even if they do score a huge total, you can still redeem yourselves with the bat knowing that if one player comes off you are still in with a chance of chasing down virtually any score. Have we seen the Black Caps a month ahead of their World Cup coronation?
Maybe, and as Martin Crowe said when presented with his ICC Cricket Hall of Fame cap during an emotional ceremony at the dinner break we, as New Zealanders, can “dare to dream.” But there is still a long, long way to go and after the nervy conclusion to today’s game, McCullum and his players, while happy to come out on top, will know that better than anyone else.