His chunky kit-bag slinging on the shoulders, Steve Smith snuck out of the dressing room to the ground. The drizzle had almost stopped, and Smith curious for a statutory peep of the strip, which was almost entirely dressed up with white and blue tarpaulin sheets, stepped on to the ground. In some parts, the puddles had formed gentle streams. Smith had gone only as far as the boundary ropes before the drizzle dutifully resumed. Covering his head with the back of his palm, the Australia captain tip-toed back to the dressing room. (Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)
The rains here have a cruel sense of timing, to go with the general grouse of having been deprived of the marquee India-Pakistan fixture. The weather had nearly washed off the qualifiers – the second round was fully abandoned and the third round featured just 44 of the possible 80 overs, including a farcical six-overs-a-side contest between the Netherlands and Ireland. Then, for most of the next three days, it was balmy and sunny, the pristine blue sky without a trace of grey clouds. It remained much the same on Wednesday, when the Australians practised with their shades on and zinc cream smeared on their face in the afternoon. But Thursday presented the opposite – you could spot the jumpers and wet kit bags, players going on and off the nets, ducking the odd pellet of hailstone. Three hours later, New Zealand’s Ross Taylor strode into the press conference room in hooded sweat shirt, rubbing his palms. “It feels a bit like New Zealand winter,” joked Taylor.
Thrust on captains
If rain continues to manifest its quirky side on Friday – as is predicted – it could present manifold challenges for the two skippers, who are still on probation in this format. Smith, though Test and ODI skipper since last year, has captained Australia in this version just four times, once as a makeshift and then hustled into taking over the responsibility following the series defeat against India. His counterpart, Kane Williamson, has led New Zealand on as many as 13 instances, but mostly as a stand-in to Brendon McCullum, when the latter was either injured or on a break. While in the past they have been compared and contrasted vis-a-vis their batting credentials, they will now be compared in terms of their strategic nous as well.
But before the comparisons get full blown, both Smith and Williamson are confronted with a set of not-so-straightforward decisions, even before the match. Smith is far from zeroing in on the ideal eleven for the match, as they have been jigging and re-jigging their eleven since the start of the miserable series against India. They seem a little undercut in the bowling department, possible missing an enforcer in the Mitchell Starc mould. Josh Hazlewood is more of a disciplined and steady operator, and while he can be extremely hard to get away, he is not quite the kind of bowler who can swing the match’s course in a over. Apart from Hazlewood, Smith can choose from a bevy of limited-overs purveyors like Andrew Tye and John Hastings as well as medium-pace all-rounders like James Faulkner and Nathan Coulter-Nile. If he feels the pitch could aid spinners, he wouldn’t hesitate to play both his frontline spinners – Ashton Agar and Adam Zampa. And in the top order, he has too may options to clutter his mind.
Smith, in general, doesn’t come across as someone who’s going to have sleepless nights over picking his best eleven. He, despite his low-on-experience bowling firm, is assured of his side’s quality and adaptability. “I think we are pretty settled and everybody knows their role. Everybody has played a bit of T20 cricket in the recent few weeks. We are all ready to go and each person knows how each individual plays,” he points out. If indeed he has some pressing issues tearing him, he does well to conceal it. So you’d hardly ever find him flustered or petulant on the field. You can always see him chirping from the slip cordon or sprinting up to the bowler to give a quick pep-talk, a bit of like what Sir Alex Ferguson said of his first sighting of Ryan Giggs: floating “over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”
Williamson, on the other hand, seems rather quiet and serious – although he has trimmed his beard, he still has a philosopher’s poise. Taylor believes Williamson will evolve into a more vocal and assertive captain in the future: “Kane is not vocal yet. You know in time he will have a style that he feels comfortable with and mould the side to his liking. Brendon announcing his retirement before Christmas gave Kane got a lot to time to learn of Brendon’s captaincy first of all and come up with a style that is nice to him. It is never easy to captain after Brendon’s style and charisma. But Kane is genuine in the way he comes about and talks. He’s soft-spoken and maybe in three years you will see his real character.”
Williamson is clearly evolving as a captain. In Nagpur, he took the brave decision to bench the experienced pace pair of Tim Southee and Trent Boult and instead chose three spinners. In hindsight, it seemed a masterstroke. “It was a big call. And a lot of the credit has to go to Kane and (Mike) Hesson , first of all for coming up with the plan, then for the forthright conviction to go with it. You have got two very experienced players, who have had a lot of success in these conditions, it takes a lot of guts to do that (to drop the players),” pointed out Taylor.
And here he will probably have to sit one of them out, as the strip isn’t expected to turn as much as the one in Nagpur. “Obviously we have to wait and see what the conditions are like. The boundaries are lot smaller here. In Nagpur the boundaries were so big, so you couldn’t attack the spinners as much as you would have liked because if you didn’t hit the ball 100 per cent, you were going to get caught at the boundary. Rotating the strike played a big part there but here mishits can still go for six,” opined Taylor.
But more than the team permutation, they’ll be bothered by the weather. If rain persists, they may not even have the match at all, or have to settle for a compressed contest like the one between the Dutch and Irish on Sunday, reducing the match to a “lottery”, as Dutch skipper Peter Borren put it. Ever the pragmatist, Smith he has plans ready. “I think you have to have something in mind. I don’t think a lot of the gameplans or the way each individual plays changes too much, but I think you do have to have a few different gameplans if the game is a bit shorter.”
So has New Zealand. “Every game is totally different and we need to access the conditions here and of course with rain around it could be a shortened game and we need to change the balance. Maybe we will not go in with three spinners,” felt Taylor.
Since Australia’s canter in the World Cup final last year, they have toured each other once. Australia won both the Test series, but Kiwis wrestled back the initiative in the ODIs, inflicting massive wins over the “Big Brothers”. Smith was quick to point out their one-upmanship: “In big games in the recent times, we have probably got wood over them.”
Taylor, though, subtly pointed out that the neutrality of the venue would even out the past record. “Any time you play them, they are a big brother I guess. They always had a lot of success against us. But these are very foreign conditions to what we’ve played in Eden Park or MCG and you know it takes spin. Both teams in the past have their moments against spin. I think spin will have a big role to play tomorrow and what ever happened 12 months ago is gone and it is a new team that is looking forward to play in bigger matches.”
But before the Trans-Tasman rivalry could add another chapter to its narrative, or Williamson and Smith could afford another platform to be compared, the rain gods have to be appeased. And if Thursday was any signifier, they clearly are not.