As a quick scan of previous results at cricket’s premier tournament shows, New Zealand has a better-than-average pedigree, reaching the semi-finals in 1975, 1979, 1992 and 1999. But more than their history, it’s their ability to cause an upset or two that will have analysts casting more than a passing glance in the Kiwis’ direction.
But first things first. For New Zealand to progress to the Super Six stage, they must avoid becoming victims of an upset themselves against minnows Kenya, Bangladesh and Canada, even as they rack up a win or two against Sri Lanka, the West Indies and South Africa.
Admittedly, the draw is favourable to the Kiwis. The venues for their two key clashes—against Sri Lanka and the West Indies—are Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. Both Goodyear Park and St George’s Park should see the New Zealand bowling in its element, with helpful conditions. Against hosts South Africa, it is a different story. Johannesburg’s Wanderers Stadium is a veritable fortress for the local side, and the pace and bounce of that surface will be about as un-New-Zealandish as they will get in the tournament.
It is perhaps well, then, that New Zealand are currently basking in the glow of a glut of all-rounders, all of whom appear capable of wresting back a match at a vital juncture. The names of Jacob Oram and Andre Adams spring to mind first; Oram, in particular, is a strapping lad capable of a spell of swift seamers, and he can swat the ball to all corners of a one-day ground.
New Zealand will also find the experience of Chris Harris invaluable, even as cricket fans wait on news of Chris Cairns’ fitness. Just as Australia are prepared to give every opportunity to Shane Warne to arrive at South Africa injury-free, so too will New Zealand to Cairns. His role as a batsman is likely to prove more meaningful, as bowling appears a task difficult for his body to sustain these days.
Indeed, the extent of Cairns’ involvement at the World Cup may well decide New Zealand’s fortunes. The think-tank of captain Stephen Fleming and coach Denis Aberhart may even wish to wait until the Super Six stage before they fully unleash Cairns on their opponents. That sort of cotton-wool approach could well be the way to go.
The batting will no doubt hinge on the experienced trio of Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan and Fleming. Their presence at the top of the order is crucial, and how well this engine-room performs will be vital. With the South African tracks hinting at a high-scoring set of contests, the ability of the afore-mentioned to contribute three-figure knocks will become important.
With Fleming—rather dogmatically—sticking to his intention of opening the innings, the Kiwis may find themselves with limited back-up if that plan fails. His form has been under a microscope of late; international captains the world over tend to have their own form examined more than most, and now it appears to be Fleming’s turn. But this time the critics have a point, and the captain will want to score heavily early in the competition to relieve the pressure.
If his position at the top does not work out, Lou Vincent—an opener at Test level—may find his way to the top of the order. Vincent also adds value in the field, where he actively seeks the action and is the constant voice of enthusiasm.
Shane Bond’s arrival is probably the most significant happening in New Zealand cricket since the halcyon days of Richard Hadlee in the ’80s. Bond burst into the arena against Australia during the 2001-02 series, and since then his stock has continued to rise. The one-dimensional, thoroughly medium-paced attack of the mid-’90s has now become a balanced one, with the atypical Kiwi trundler now complemented by a bit of grunt at the other end. Add to the mix Daniel Vettori, and all of a sudden you have a group of bowlers who give Fleming quite a few options to work with. The pitches in South Africa, moreover, will suit Bond nicely, and the Kiwis will be relying on him for early breakthroughs and reverse-swinging yorkers during the slog overs.
The wicket-keeper question was perhaps the most contentious decision that convenor of selectors Sir Richard Hadlee and others had to make. Young Otago tyro Brendon McCullum has got the nod over the more experienced Chris Nevin, but it was a close call, with early-season opportunities limited for either to stake a compelling claim. McCullum gives the appearance that he will one day be a star performer for his country; whether that day is further in the future than this World Cup is the point. McCullum’s selection may thus be a gamble on the part of the selectors.
The Kiwis have always prided themselves on a thorough team ethic and an ability to pull together when times are tough. Fleming has great belief in his side, and with his own captaincy almost faultless, New Zealand will be exceptionally well-prepared. Their planning processes of looking at an opponent and analysing its strengths and weaknesses are impressive.
But will a total team effort be enough? Star quality is often the difference in a close limited-overs contest, a fact that was never better proven than at the last World Cup when Australia, with all sorts of ground to make up, won match after match in succession to eventually be crowned champions. The individual performances of stalwart cricketers Steve Waugh, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath were hugely influential.
New Zealand too will need to turn to their star talent if they are to reach the latter stages of this World Cup. They will be looking primarily at Cairns, Astle, Bond and Vettori for inspiration, and if these leading lights can deliver, New Zealand have much to look forward to in this World Cup.
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