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Sunday, November 28, 2021

T20 World Cup final: New Zealand thrive on tried and trusted formula

Kane Williamson's side has set methods and plans that they employ to great effect as everyone knows their role.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: November 13, 2021 1:31:12 pm
New Zealand's Kane Williamson celebrates with teammates during the T20 World Cup semi-final against England. (Reuters)

Kane Williamson loves his time in the kitchen and discusses recipes with chefs at local restaurants in his home town of Mount Maunganui. A coffee aficionado, he recently took a barista course with a group that had worked with indigenous communities in South America to grow beans throughout rainforests.

Sometimes, Williamson strikes cooking analogies when talking about leadership. He once told Tauranga Radio: “Preparing a good team is like preparing a good dish, it’s about knowing when to use the ingredients and how to use them. Just the right amount for the right results.”

Some of his teams have had that precision in ingredients. Just the perfect pinch of salt, just the precise dash of pepper. Flavourful, yet no flavour stands out and leaves one with an aftertaste. In his teams, everyone has a well-defined role, and they neither underperform nor overperform. Some amount of overlapping is unavoidable, yet more or less, the components efficiently stick to their functions like clockwork. The team works with the cohesion of a refined footballing system, there are no jerks or screeches.

Everyone knows everyone else’s role. They are wary not to step on the other’s shoes, and even if they do, they don’t try to ape the other, or be the other. So, if Martin Guptill’s designated role is to set the tone with his aggressive strokes, Daryl Mitchell’s is to play the accomplice, rotate strike, take the more difficult bowler, weather the storm, and plaster the basement. If Guptill perishes prematurely, Mitchell doesn’t put on the Guptill mask, but adheres to his philosophy of batting. He incrementally accelerates, first humming low-intoned notes, before strumming out the high notes and reaching a devilish crescendo, as he illustrated against England. Midway through the innings, he was scoring runs at a strike rate of 100 or thereabouts. At one stage, he was 46 off 40 balls; in the next six balls, he swatted 26 runs. At no moment during his sluggish middle phase did he panic, for he knew he could dial the big strokes when push came to shove.

Similarly, Williamson and Conway bat like they always do, with serenity and assurance, preserving the run rate, latching onto bad balls and non-violently shattering the bowlers’ morale. There’s no steak of unhealthy wannabe-ness. They do add more layers to their game, but not by diluting their original game or personality.

Down the order, they have a clutch of swashbucklers, from Glenn Phillips to Tim Southee, and oftentimes, it’s just the case of a couple of them putting on the afterburners in a match. Against England, it was the turn of Jimmy Neesham; against Australia, it could be the night of Tim Seifert, who would replace the injured Conway, or Mitchell Santner. That New Zealand’s is the least tinkered-around batting side captures the story of their clearly-demarcated roles.

Role players

Their bowling is no different — structural discipline is the guiding light. Even before a match, the opponent can second-guess their hand. The old pals, Tim Southee and Trent Boult would open, Adam Milne is the usual first-change, followed by spinners Ish Sodhi and Santner. If conditions ally, Neesham would drop by for an over or two. Or Phillips would trundle in for an over of off-spin. But other than a tweak here or a chop there, they are as formulaic as Hollywood rom-com movies. One knows the script even before one hits the cinema hall, but still ends up watching and enjoying the movie with popcorn in one hand and a moist hankie in the other.

Both work because the methods are simple and straightforward, bereft of overcomplication. The skill-sets are so vividly defined that there is no temptation to change the established patterns and ideals. The skills are so specialised that A cannot perform B’s role, or C cannot don D’s clothes. Or the other way around. Put it another way, no player is alike, and they bask in their differences.

Some may misconstrue this as lack of versatility, or worse rigidity. But this lack of versatility is a blessing in the T20 format. It gives Williamson and the team management the clarity on what to expect from each player. In turn, the player knows what the team expects from him and what he expects from himself. There is no futile, twisted attempt to fit square pegs in round holes. The holes and pegs are of the ideal sizes and shapes so they fit seamlessly.

Simplicity works

Often in T20s, the presence of too many multidimensional players could be a burden. The often-termed happy headache turns out to be a terminal headache. A contrast would be the West Indies team — they packed their side with so many similar types of players. Too many big-hitting openers, too many seam-bowling all-rounders, and too many finishers, that they ended up as a confused bunch, uncertain of their roles.

Within this apparent structural rigidity, there is considerable flexibility in the Kiwis’ system. It’s not like they respond the same way to every situation, but they adapt and adjust. On a belter, Mitchell would not be soaking up dot balls or Southee striving for swing on every other ball. They are a group of extremely worldly-wise individuals with different backgrounds, different pathways to the national teams and with exposure to different conditions and adversaries.

NZ vs AUS, T20 world cup final Kane Williamson and Aaron Finch will fight it out on Sunday. (Twitter/CricketAustralia)

It’s New Zealand’s blueprint across formats — there are not too many people who do too many things. But they have men who perform their roles to their optimal capacity. And players with unique skills, like Neil Wagner in Tests, a left-arm enforcer, or Kyle Jamieson, a beanpole who could swing the ball both ways. Or Boult and Southee, who could swing the ball even in T20 games and on parched tracks in the Middle East.

Many teams could brag about more exciting and more flamboyant individuals. If the game was all about talent, they would have win hands down. But it’s also about temperament and teamwork – which help New Zealand as they keep winning matches and reaching finals. And in knowing the precise proportion of ingredients, when to use them and how to use them.

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