New Zealand inflict dignified hurt, they like to upset the applecart. They did it in the 2019 World Cup semifinal as underdogs. They repeated it at the World Test Championship final this year. Now they are a win away from knocking India out of the T20 World Cup.
On Sunday, they face Afghanistan, with 1.4 billion Indians watching and praying for their defeat. Add Indian expats in the UAE to the list. Some messages on WhatsApp called for divine intervention. From the tournament’s perspective, the T20 World Cup would lose glamour if India’s campaign ends on Sunday. But why should the Kiwis care? The most consistent team in ICC events over the last half a decade sniffs the semifinals by dint of their performance. They are the unassuming winners, who revel in not being the favourites in any tournament. They are a bunch of brilliantly-skilled cricketers who don’t mind self-deprecation.
“Somewhere between zero and one per cent,” said Jimmy Neesham, when he was asked about 1.4 billion Indians cheering on (for New Zealand’s opponents) and the corresponding support for the Kiwis. Neesham’s wit is something to fall for, also his dry humour. After the Namibia game, he spoke about the art of keeping outside noise at arm’s length.
“We are pretty good as a unit at sort of keeping what’s necessary to concentrate on in the front of our minds. There’s been a few occasions I know the last couple of months where there’s been a lot of people talking a lot about us off the field, so it doesn’t bother us too much.”
— BLACKCAPS (@BLACKCAPS) November 5, 2021
Player to player, New Zealand are better than their Afghanistan counterparts – maybe, Ish Sodhi versus Rashid Khan is a good head-to-head – but this is a T20 fixture with the unpredictability of a penalty shootout in football. Then again, New Zealand have the team for all conditions.
On a slow and low Sharjah pitch, their game against Namibia was a case in point. When boundaries were hard to come by, Neesham and Glenn Phillips ran 10 twos between them. The Kiwis don’t bank on one or two match-winners, rather, as Sodhi said, it’ been a collective effort, every player making small contributions. They have only one half-century to their credit in four matches, Martin Guptill scoring 93 against Scotland. No bowler has claimed four wickets in a game yet. But New Zealand are greater than the sum of their parts.
Their cricket has been about more pragmatism than flamboyance, sticking to the basics and preparing well. They have a reluctant star in Kane Williamson, who wears adulation so politely that sometimes it borders on shyness. Trent Boult is arguably the world’s best left-arm fast bowler, especially after Mitchell Starc’ slide. But he doesn’t carry the air of a rock star and plays his cricket with a smile.
An Indian perspective to their game on Sunday is for the fans to harp on. New Zealand see this as a must-win fixture to reach the last four. Sodhi expectedly addressed the India part with indifference. “I guess looking forward to tomorrow, we see it as another game. I think if we keep it as simple as trying to adapt to the conditions best as we can, and being aware of the threats that Afghanistan pose and also taking into consideration the things we have done really well, if we can do them really well, I think then we can put on a good performance and all that other stuff takes care of itself.”
The leg-spinner is good to go after a narrow escape from a major head injury while fielding against Namibia on Friday. After some concussion tests and a bit of rest, he was rather complaining about not getting rasmalai on Diwali, having to make do with gulab jamun and gajar ka halwa instead.
The underdogs question made him serious. “I don’t think we have ever even spoken about that. We just try to play as good cricket as we possibly can. A big part of it has been the leadership group have harped on a lot about adapting to conditions as quickly as we can,” Sodhi said at the pre-match presser.
“I think that’s been tailored into our training. If you come, watch a training, especially when you see some of the guys that have been playing for the last 10-12 years, they are very specific in their training when it comes to preparing for certain conditions, certain match-ups,” Sodhi added.
Afghanistan can take heart from the fact that Scotland ran the Kiwis close. Also, their own performance against Pakistan was one to speak of despite the defeat. But spin-heavy Afghanistan are a very conditions-specific side. Also, the equation for them to advance is not all that simple.
India’s massive win over Scotland has made it imperative for Mohammad Nabi’s troops to go all out on Sunday, for they have to take care of their net run rate as well. Abu Dhabi pitches so far have aided batsmen, which makes things more complicated for a side that has punched above its weight in this tournament, brushing aside the ferment back home and very little preparation time in the lead-up. Afghanistan know that the whole of India would be watching but Hashmatullah Shahidi said they would like to focus on their cricket. But forget India, Afghanistan qualifying for the semifinals would be the biggest story of the World Cup. They have an outside chance.
Ahead of this tournament, Asian teams were thought to have an advantage, with the conditions in the UAE tailor-made for them. As things stand, Pakistan could be the continent’s tenuous link to the knockouts.
The mystery has evaporated into the desert, mainly due to the Indian Premier League. Teams have adopted specific training methods for different conditions and players from the Occident, or Down Under, no longer get mentally bogged down while playing in this part of the world, especially in the shorter formats. The IPL has made cricket a big global village.
The Indian team will keep an eye on the New Zealand-Afghanistan game, but aren’t unduly perturbed. Ravindra Jadeja was asked about this after his Man-of-the-Match performance against Scotland and the conversation at the presser was exciting…
Reporter: Agar Afghanistan nahi hara paye New Zealand ko, phir (What if Afghanistan fail to beat New Zealand)?
Jadeja: Toh phir bags pack karke ghar jayenge, aur kya (We will pack our bags and go home, what else)!