Soon after Kane Williamson called the coin correctly and did the needful, to bat on a surface that was getting more baked in the sun and hence drier and more difficult to bat on as the game weans away, the announcer at the stadium read out the New Zealand eleven from the team-sheet. He stammered, inadvertently at the sixth name on the sheet. After a pause, he read out, “Mc-le-ghan”. Not satisfied, he paused again, and came up with another variant, “Mc-clean-again”. Unwilling to give up, he attempted again. The third time though, the tired announcer, came close to getting the surname correct, “Mc-clain-again”. Reasonably satisfied, he moved on, and read out the remaining names in a single breath. (Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)
A few restless souls in the crowd, the studious linguists in them, too must have taken their tongues through a few twirls and twists. Then when Martin Guptill began his onslaught of Australian bowlers, they must buried this tongue-twisting surname down their brains. Like the announcer, the crowd too must not have anticipated the peculiarly difficult-to-pronounce surname to feature on the team sheet. Perhaps, even Mitchell McClenaghan too might not have fancied him being picked for the match.
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It was almost certain they would swap a spinner for a seamer on a surface not as much as a vicious turner that Nagpur was. But McClenaghan was perhaps the third choice, for there were far more accomplished seamers cooling their heels off, Tim Southee and Trent Boult, their trusted new-ball pair in longer versions. But whoever designs New Zealand’s strategies has a freakish sense of foreboding, blessed with a left-sided thinking pattern that can, at first surprise you, before it eventually stuns you at the sheer brilliance of it. You can call it inspired or genius, or maybe even sheer fluke, but the decision to draft in McClenaghan was a master-stroke, like the three-spinner ploy against a spin-fed bunch of Indian batsmen in Nagpur.
So McClenaghan was informed he was playing only after the team had reached the ground. “I came to know when I went to the toilet and walked back and saw it on the white board. It was quite late. But that’s the nature of our team,” he said.
Only that the role he was to perform, and was to perform prolifically, demanded eschewing his best gifts — the ability to bowl and shape the ball into the batsmen at brisk but not express pace. But this was a strip wherein he was required to bowl short of length and cutters than yorkers and bouncers. So he carefully spent most of the time his colleagues batted watching Australia’s medium pacers’ bowl, their lengths they were hitting especially. “We had enough time to study from the way the Australians bowled. After Watson’s second over or halfway through the first, I walked over to Timmy (Southee) and (Trent) Boulty and Nate (Nathan McCullum) and kind of picked their brain. We realised it was not a yorker wicket. It was really hard to time off back of a length and cutters and change-ups. Every time someone went on pace they got pumped. That assessment was made pretty early,” he explained.
This was that sort of a pitch, one where the lack of pace and bounce made through-the-line shot-making nigh to impossible. Timing was almost as elusive as finding life in outer space. Consequently, once the ball got older — as old as six overs — the batsmen had to manufacture the big strokes to manipulate the field. Colin Munro’s switch-late-cut and switch slog-sweep — gave a glimpse of how different you had to think for hitting boundaries after the powerplay overs.
But still 143 was not an unreachable destination for the Australians. But then McClenaghan, as well his colleagues, executed their plans to clockwork perfection — the only thing that was perfect apart from the pleasant weather. But for an odd short-ball or the fuller one, he landed most of the deliveries short-of-good length and smartly mixed up his pace. With his first slower ball of the day, he accounted for Shane Watson, who along with Usman Khawaja had furnished Australia with a pacy start. Breaching the opening pair saw a massive momentum swing, infact in both innings. New Zealand lost Kane Williamson and Corey Anderson in the space of 15 runs after Guptill’s exit. Likewise, Australia imploded from 44 for no loss to 66 for four.
McClenaghan’s moment of impact was yet to come. When McClenaghan stomped into bowl the 19th over, Australia were within realistic distance for surpassing the target, requiring 22 runs off 12 balls with five wickets in tact. And those five included the Mitchell Marsh-Ashton Agar duo in the middle and James “finisher” Faulkner padded up.
The Kiwi bowled a slower-ball first up and induced a miscued pull to long-on to nail a well-established Marsh. Three balls that conceded two runs later, Agar mistimed a short-of-length ball to the mid-wicket fieldsman. The over palpably changed the game.
New Zealand celebrated as they normally do, with a spontaneously likable charm, their retro-beige kit dusting up nostalgia. Perhaps more than their Brendon McCullum-inspired stomp into the final last year, it revived memories of their memorable run in the 1992 World Cup, under the impressionable Martin Crowe.
Crowe’s spiritual protege Kane Williamson seems to be blessed with his insouciant grace with the willow as well as tactical nonchalance. And like Crowe, he has a squad that fully realises and accepts the logic of every decision. So Nathan McCullum wasn’t the least peeved when he was dropped for the match after his manful contribution in Nagpur. A happy dressing room environment, where teammates are appreciative of each other’s success, shows the faith they have in Williamson, still in the educative phase of his captaincy career.
Whereas in Nagpur, they demonstrated that they have done their home work well and were equipped with the ingredients required to blossom in the sub-continent, in the process out-thinking the hosts, here they reinforced their ability to think on the feet to make quick alterations to their thinking. And thinking differently.
Brief scores: New Zealand 142/8 in 20 overs (M Guptill 39; G Maxwell 2/18, J Faulkner 2/18) beat Australia 134/9 in 20 overs (U Khawaja 38; M McClenaghan 3/17, C Anderson 2/27, M Santner 2/30) by 8 runs.