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World Twenty20: Kiwis must believe they can still fly

In post McCullum era, skipper Kane Williamson must brush off the semifinal loss and carry on with aggressive brand of cricket.

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi |
Updated: April 1, 2016 9:33:42 am
new zealand, new zealand cricket, cricket new zealand, new zealand icc world t20, icc world t20, world t20, kane williamson, williamson, mccullum, cricket news, cricket New Zealand were unbeaten in the tournament before losing in the semifinals against England. (Source: Reuters)

March 29, 2015: Australia had just emasculated New Zealand in one of the most one-sided finals of the 50-over World Cup in amphitheatrical MCG. Their skipper Brendon McCullum, concealing the understandable disappointment with that blithe smile of his, graciously put their defeat in perspective. “We’ll let the dust settle on this final and we certainly won’t look to grab any headlines in the next couple of days, because they belong to Australia and they’ve earned the right to do so. I think it’s the right thing to allow Australia to bask in the glory of their success. Hopefully, the style of cricket and the things we’ve been able to implement with this team and the brand we’re trying to play will remain and develop over the next little while.”

The dust settled in. McCullum retired. The legacy lived on.

March 30, 2016: England had razed New Zealand to rubble in the old-worldly canvas of Feroz Shah Kotla. Skipper Kane Williamson, twiddling his cap, calmly acknowledged, and then dissected, the defeat: “You accept that when you turn up to the ground you want to play your best cricket, but if the other team plays better then you tend to come second. That’s what happened to us. We didn’t win. We didn’t play the better cricket. England were very very good. As simple as that. We will all be better for it. We will move on and be a better team.”

The dust has yet to settle in. Williamson and his boys have yet to move on.

The legacy is not endangered, though. There are enough portents for better days. Going by the law of averages, you can visualise Williamson holding aloft the trophy smiling that languorous smile of his, his colleagues frothing champagne all over him in near future. You’d think New Zealand, that had lost the final and semifinal of World Cups in successive years, and had so in the past on numerous instances, would only be emboldened by the recent setback. They are due. They will return refreshed, and gluttonous for that elusive silverware than most other teams.

But in sport, it sometimes works conversely. The habit of losing sticks on. It keeps hounding and haunting you, taking you sometimes to depressive or neurotic levels. Especially for a side that has lost a final and semi-final in a year’s span, after dominating it for much of the time. You are suddenly deigned weak in the mind, vulnerable to big-match pressure, stereotyped for lacking a remorselessness winning sides always nurture. For New Zealand, this stereotype has metamorphosed into a mythical extreme, much like the Dutch football sides of the 1970s and 1980s.

Conceptualised by two iconoclastic geniuses-as ingenious as any the beautiful game has seen-they went on charming the world with their alluringly radical philosophy of total football, sub-altern but simple. It became a national obsession, then a national identity, and then a national burden that still continues to taunt and torment them (though they have long shunned romance for pragmatism).

The Kiwis haven’t radicalised cricket to that ubiquitous extent. Their syntax is far less idealistic though the simplicity in strategising is comparable. But New Zealand can’t let themselves be taunted and tormented by the past. It can only push them back to their darkest days.

So Williamson’s foremost challenge is to not let his side sulk, as did Martin Crowe’s batch of 1992, to bury the pangs as fast as possible, and maybe reinvent themselves a bit. Soul-searching and introspection are fine, but not to extent of an obsession. He should inject the belief they can be world beaters.

On this will be gauged the maturity of Williamson as a skipper. At least on the apparent, he seems to have the level-headedness to ride the storm, and prognose the defeat unemotionally. He fully grasps the nature of the game. While McCullum’s traced the final defeat to the “game’s fickle nature”, Williamson put it down to the “fine lines” of the game.

He further elaborated: “When you look back and think a few inches the other way and you would have got that extra 20 runs. It’s a fine line, T20 cricket. Today it didn’t work out for us the way we would have liked. We played a semi-final not a long time ago. We went all right. We didn’t come second. We came first in that one. That’s just cricket. We move on and we look to get better as a team.”

A more rounded pool

He needs to pass this emotional balance onto his teammates as well, teammates, if nursed along carefully, can be white-ball masters in a not-so-distant future. If you look at it carefully, this New Zealand side is an upgrade on the brigade that reached the finals last year. They have a more rounded pool to choose from. Whereas they were not entirely condition-proof last year, here they have a group who can thrive on any condition.

The most perceptible positive has been the surfacing of two well-stocked limited-over spinners. Whereas the Kiwis couldn’t think beyond an on-the-last-legs Daniel Verttori in the 2015 World Cup, they now have Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi, to go with Nathan McCullum. Not that they hadn’t exited before this World Cup, but it’s this edition that they chose to prosper.

This makes them a force to be reckoned with in the subcontinent, something few New Zealand sides could lay claim to. Ish Sodhi, especially, has been a terrific addition.

“He’s (Ish Sodhi) had a fantastic T20 tournament along with Mitchell Santner. We’ve played on so many different wickets and the guys have adapted well, grown so much as a bowling unit. I suppose they have matured as well in this part of the world, which is extremely important for themselves and the team moving forward,” Williamson observed.

Along this journey of moving forward, he would be pressed to make brave, and even harsh, decisions at times. Like for instance solving the Ross Taylor puzzle. While the latter has revived himself in the longest version, his utility has digressed in the shortest version. His demotion to number 5 hasn’t quite paid dividends.

He, ideally, likes to bat at number three or four, where he can afford to bed in before getting expansive.

“It is definitely easy to score upfront,” Taylor had said before the Australia match. He’s not the archetypal number 5, who can start hitting the gaps straightaway or a smart manipulator of singles or twos. If Williamson can indeed unlock Taylor’s potential, their menace will be doubled.

The biggest lesson the young skipper learnt was not to try too hard. Then you will not only not enjoy the game, it gets burdensome. He confided as much: “Sometimes in this format the harder you try the worse it can get. Do it as best as you can. Let things unfold to a certain extent. Saying that, you want to be smart in how you want to execute your skills.”

He stands by the aggressive brand of cricket formatted and formulated by McCullum. “I think it is very important to be process-driven in this format and play fearlessly. There is no room for conservative cricket ,” he emphasises. And not to forget, in between, to unwind. Then they might, finally, pay good-riddance to the needling ghosts of the past.

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