“You are worse than England.” An orchestrated taunt went up from a large section of the full house at Eden Park. Their target of derision was 11 yellow jerseys bobbing around the park, hounded by Brendon McCullum, and the chant morphed into deafening howl almost.
It seemed as if that aural memory would be the perfect takeaway from the Auckland night when it happened. Brendon McCullum got out. Panic wafted in alarmingly quickly and it was New Zealand who were playing worse than England.
It was an entertaining game but littered with mistakes from nervy batsmen that amplified the bowling, which was definitely good but not as venomous as it seemed, but then who can complain when after an anaesthetic couple of weeks, the top teams have contrived to produce a close game.
Somehow, after a dramatic phase, one of several in this puzzling game, where New Zealand had plunged from 131 for 4 to 146 for 9, unable to control their nerves, and the accuracy and swing of Mitchell Starc, New Zealand needed six with just one wicket left and Kane Williamson was on strike.
A blur of feet, whirring arms, whirling bat and the ball was among screaming fans beyond long-on. Soon after, Williamson is stroking his beard. He tugs at it, caresses it, as words escapes his lips ever so gently. The second aural memory from a bewildering night: A soft whisper, a murmur of confidence and relief. It doesn’t strike as the voice of a man who charged out to wallop a six to seal up a thriller but then that was a shot of surprise from this smart young unassuming man, who Stephen Fleming thinks is going to be the next captain.
Another kind of sound stood out in the period of uncertainty just before that shot from the bearded wonder. Not quite silence but a restless murmur of nervousness that spread across the arena until Williamson morphed it into a cry of celebration and relief.
However, the mistakes, barring the ones made right in the end against Starc, were ones of intent gone awry. Both teams wanted, almost desperately at times, to blaze out aggressively, intending to score psychological points, and present themselves as brashly confident outfits.
At one point, Trent Boult had bowled a spell of 3-2-1-5. He was certainly good, getting the ball to curve in from over the stumps and straighten a wee bit from round, enough to rip through middle order.
New Zealand’s best bowler, though, was Daniel Vettori. When he came on after a wayward spell from Tim Southee, Australia were whistling at 51 for 1 in 6 overs. All through his life, his calling card was that he never allows the batsman to cut. Ball after ball, he has pinged an impeccable full-length, dealt in changes of pace, and punctuated his metronomic length with that skiddy arm-ball. On Saturday, though, on this Eden Park stadium, with its shorter straight boundaries and longer square-boundaries, a place that he obviously knows very well, Vettori hit a short of length. Again and again. The pace was more than usual as he couldn’t afford to give any time to cut but somehow, despite this length, he still managed to get the change of pace working and that arm-ball zipping along fabulously well. His first five cost 15 runs, an incredible achievement on this track, at this ground, and he managed to pull back Australia from a position of strength. And it was then that Boult swooped in impressively and did all the damage.
Brendon McCullum’s captaincy is winning him raves from characters like Martin Crowe. “Courage” is the word Crowe uses, Fleming termed the same trait as “almost unNewZealand like”. Saturday offered more proof of that. He almost bowled out three of his best bowlers in a single-minded pursuit of wickets. It helps that he has skilful bowlers to do it but as Fleming said the other day, “It’s one thing to place four slips in an ODI but it’s entirely another thing to have the team believe in it.” That has been McCullum’s greatest achievement of late.
However, this game has also exposed a few frailties of New Zealand. That middle order is iffy and if a knock out game arrives where they have to chase near 300, it can get very tricky. They desperately need Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill to start firing. Australia’s mistakes could be put down to over ambition but one can’t do the same with New Zealand. They need couple of their batsman to re-discover form before they can think of over-extending themselves. What this game has done is given hope to the rest of the teams. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. We now know that New Zealand can choke and Australia can crumble but it must be said that this tournament still awaits a gripping high-quality contest between the top teams.