A little over two years after contesting arguably the greatest One-Day International of all time, on the grandest stage in the game, familiar rivals England and New Zealand lock horns to earn the right to contest the final of the ICC T20 World Cup.
The 2019 50-over World Cup final at Lord’s was one for the ages, and another nail-biter may be in store when the two sides face off in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
India were many people’s favourites going into the tournament, but while Virat Kohli’s men looked jaded after a hectic international schedule and the Indian Premier League, other teams chose to keep several of their key men fresh for the big event by giving them breaks. This seems to have reaped dividends for the two contestants on Wednesday.
Having said that, both New Zealand and England have key players who are IPL regulars; from Kane Williamson and Trent Boult to Eoin Morgan and Moeen Ali. A month of franchise cricket in this part of the world left them well prepared for the showpiece event, nullifying the conditions factor and all but cancelling out the subcontinental advantage.
“I think we have seen in this tournament, and we certainly saw in the second half of the IPL, the variability and the surfaces which perhaps would have lent itself more naturally to certain sides,” Williamson said at the pre-match press conference.
The bedding-in period notwithstanding, New Zealand’s march to the semifinals, at the expense of India, is down to playing better all-round cricket by a side that has been on a steady rise since the last World T20 in 2016. Back then, they lost to England at the same stage of the tournament in Delhi. At the 2019 50-over World Cup final, they had been on the receiving end of a boundary count-back result. But the Kiwis didn’t hold any grudge after the Lord’s heartbreak.
“… it was an amazing game to be a part of. And when it does come up in conversation, it’s looked back on fondly. Although, at the time the aftermath was very difficult to understand and perhaps didn’t make a lot of sense,” the New Zealand skipper was grace personified.
Five years back at the World T20, Williamson was new to captaincy and they had a young fast bowler in Boult. The left-arm quick has progressed to be one of the best in the business and the match-up between him and Jos Buttler – who chose to skip the second phase of the IPL – could be exciting. England’s openers form the bedrock of their heavy metal cricket in the shorter formats and Buttler plays the role of an enforcer.
He will miss his usual partner Jason Roy, ruled out of the tournament with a calf injury, but James Vince is a like-for-like replacement, with a strike rate of 128-plus in T20s over the last couple of years.
Punching above their weight
England came into this tournament as the best T20I side according to the ICC rankings, while very few backed New Zealand to trump India to reach the last four. But that’s what the Black Caps do, quietly dismantling pre-tournament predictions.
Even in their country, there’s very little hype over the team’s forward march. On Tuesday, the lead story on The New Zealand Herald sports page was Aaron Smith’s ‘shock return’ to the All Blacks side. Cricket played a peek-a-boo with readers from one unassuming corner. Stuff.co.nz also had Smith’s return as their No. 1 sports story. Cricketers slip under the radar but they don’t mind their low profile. Quietly but assuredly, they have been doing their job, not only in international cricket, but also their domestic cricket has become more competitive of late, producing quality players.
The seamless transition of Daryl Mitchell and Devon Conway to the top level is reflective of domestic cricket providing a steady supply line. “He is a very experienced player. Although relatively new to the international game, but clearly world-class in his skill-set and a fantastic head on his shoulders. He has made those adjustments really quickly and come over to the UAE, which is his first time,” said Williamson about Conway.
The skipper was equally effusive in his praise for Mitchell. New Zealand don’t have a large talent pool. But they have turned that to their advantage, focusing more closely on a group of 90-odd cricketers, playing or aspiring to play international cricket.
England have given world cricket the new white-ball template to follow, the key features of their game being fearlessness and adventurism. They have also shown that it is now imperative for the big teams, with larger talent pools, to have different squads for different formats. White-ball skipper Eoin Morgan has built the team in his own image and his authority is not form-specific.
England’s one missing piece could be Tymal Mills, whose absence was felt in their narrow loss against South Africa. Mark Wood came in as the injured fast bowler’s replacement, but he is more of a long-form bowler, length-wise. Abu Dhabi pitches so far have assisted batsmen and the first semifinal could be high-scoring.
Kane’s elbow challenge
A longstanding elbow problem, which flared up during the warm-up games ahead of the T20 World Cup, has somewhat limited Williamson’s hitting at the nets. Nowadays, it’s about maintaining the right balance.
“That has been a bit of a challenge for me personally. And the balance between the loading of the elbow and things like that to try and stay as fresh as possible for the game. So, it’s a bit of a delicate balance to get my head around,” the Kiwi captain said.