It was a grey Sunday morning and a cool breeze was blowing across the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) stadium. New Zealand appeared to have brought bad weather along as they climbed down to Mohali from the mountains in Dharamsala after their second win on the trot. It was a light practice session that began with a game of sepak takraw. Since no net was available, they did what New Zealand players do: improvise. They got hold of a row of conjoined dugout seats and placed it in the middle of their makeshift court on the ground.
Innovation and adaptability are the twin hallmarks of New Zealand cricket. Perhaps, when you are geographically cut off from the rest of the world, you learn to make full use of the limited resources at your disposal. The aforementioned sepak takraw example is a decidedly unremarkable one, but the mere fact that one bothers to notice this quirky trifle is because you expect them to do different things so very often.
And by far in the ongoing World T20, they haven’t disappointed.
In their opening match against India at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur on March 15, the team wore black bands around their arms in the memory of Martin Crowe, the Blackcaps great who passed away earlier this month. The gesture, though great, was lost on most as the bands were almost indiscernible on their black sleeves. However, New Zealand’s ultimate tribute to their former skipper was the brave and tactically innovative captaincy of Kane Williamson that was reminiscent of Crowe giving the new ball to off-spinner Dipak Patel at the 1992 World Cup, and it was lost on none.
In his first assignment as New Zealand’s full-time captain, Williamson left out Tim Southee and Trent Boult, the finest new-ball pair in their country’s history, according to Sir Richard Hadlee. Boult was the joint leading wicket-taker in the 2015 ODI World Cup. Tim Southee has a vast experience of bowling on Indian pitches, having plied his trade in the IPL for Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals. And whom Williamson chose instead? Three spinners. Without the help of Cricinfo statsguru, you would struggle to remember the last occasion when the Blackcaps fielded a full-fledged spin troika in any format of the game.
Williamson’s decision was vindicated when, defending a paltry 126-run total, they spun out India for 79.
“It was a very difficult decision (to leave Bolt and Southee out). They are some high quality bowlers. (But) in order to compete over here, we have to take the odd unconventional route. And obviously, it was nice it worked out,” Mike Hesson, New Zealand coach, told Radio Sport after his team had rained on India’s parade.
It’s almost a thumb rule in cricket — and in life too — to retain the winning combination. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, as that quintessential American expression goes. However, a New Zealand cricketer would likely ask, ‘Why not?’ As they headed to the cool climes of Dharamsala for another blockbuster match and against another tournament favourite, Australia, you would have expected Messrs Hesson and Williamson to field the same XI.
Out went Nathan McCullum and left-arm pacer Mitchell McClenaghan came in his place. With 22 to defend off the last two overs, McClenaghan bowled the 19th over and conceded just three runs while taking two wickets with his slower cutters.
These are not gambles, but well thought out decisions.
“It’s important that you read the conditions and select accordingly. Today we thought we had to be different again and I’m pleased with the way the boys stepped up,” Williamson later said.
Thinking on the feet
The improvisation happens while the match is going on as well. Generally, it is considered that batting first is a disadvantage in T20 as you don’t know what score is going to be enough. On both occasions, New Zealand looked like they had fallen short significantly. But while their batsmen were struggling to time the ball on those two difficult pitches, their bowlers, at the same time, were making mental notes on what length to bowl at.
“It was pretty early (into the game against Australia), I walked over after Watson’s second over or halfway through the first. We were thinking about and talking — early into the game you have got to assess these kind of things. Walked over to Timmy (Tim Southee) and Boulty (Trent) and Nath (McCullum) and kind of picked their brains. We basically, early, probably three overs into the game, 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,” McClenaghan said.
It’s revealing. Three players who were benched also chipped in. New Zealand surely know how to make full use of all resources. Even those you think they are not using.