Balanced NZ aim to turn tables on Australia
It speaks volumes for the resilience and versatility of New Zealand cricket that, despite all the challenges and setbacks they face, they continue to produce teams that compete and surprise.
It should never be overlooked that New Zealand is a country with a population of around 4.5 million in which cricket is very much a second sport to rugby. That they continue to produce players such as Mitchell McClenaghan, the latest in a batch of impressive seam bowlers, and a team that can take on nations blessed with vastly greater populations is remarkable. While other international teams have huge pools of players, New Zealand somehow continue to develop talent from a country with a population smaller than some of the cities of their rivals.
That having been said, the last few years have not been the easiest. New Zealand have slipped to eighth in the Test and T20 rankings and seventh in ODIs. Before their thoroughly deserved ODI series victory over England and a somewhat nervy win over Sri Lanka in their first outing in this competition, they were seen as outsiders for this tournament.
But that may be changing and, unusually, they might be considered favourites in some quarters for their game against Australia at Edgbaston on Wednesday (although not by the bookies). Australia are ranked No. 2 in the ODI s but, without their injured captain Michael Clarke and clearly in the midst of a transitional period, they do appear ripe for the plucking.
If New Zealand do prevail, it will all but confirm their qualification to the semi-final stage. Bearing in mind the balance of their side and the benefits they will have taken from having had longer than the other sides in the competition to acclimatise to the conditions, they look dangerous opponents.
If they are to progress to the latter stages of this event, it seems likely that their spin bowlers will play a key role. While most onlookers felt that seam and swing would hold the key to this event, the somewhat surprising character of the pitches has led to a reappraisal of that view.
The pitches at Cardiff and Edgbaston, in particular, have been unusually dry. Spinners have played a huge role not just in containing batsmen, but in dismissing them and, as the event progresses and the pitches are re-used, they should wear more and make spin ever more important.
New Zealand are better placed than some sides to cope with that. While the record of their batsmen against spin remains modest - they played Graeme Swann poorly in the Test at Headingley - their current side does contain three men capable of exploiting the conditions with the ball.
Daniel Vettori may not be the spin bowler he once was. All those overs, all those injuries and all those years have taken their toll on him. But he is experienced, he is reliable, he is calm and he can bat. His presence would still be a major boost. Indeed, if Vettori plays, there is a possibility New Zealand will deliver up to 30 overs of spin in the game, with Nathan McCullum and Kane Williamson also likely to contribute.
"If you look at the tournament before it started," Tim Southee said, "you tend to think that, in England, it might nip around and the seamers might be the main wicket-takers. But those surfaces have been pretty dry and with them tending to play two games on each wicket, then in the second game obviously the spinners are going to come into play even more.
"The wicket in Cardiff was dry and the spinners played a massive role. I haven't had a look at the wicket at Edgbaston yet, but certainly we weren't expecting spin to play such a major part. But I guess now we're one game into the tournament and we know that spinners are playing a big part, so it's something we can adapt to."
Vettori is not certain to be fit for Wednesday's game. He will undergo a fitness test on the morning of the game before any decision is taken. Grant Elliott has already been ruled out due to a tight calf muscle.
There was no hubris from Southee, who has arguably been the pick of New Zealand's seamers throughout the tour, as he looked ahead to Wednesday's game. He understands that Australia are smarting from defeat against England and knows they will be aching to put in a much-improved performance. He knows they have a point to prove.
But he also knows they are a team in transition, still coming to terms with the loss of great players who dominated for so long.
"It's been a while since we've played them but we tend to lift a little bit more when we play against the Aussies," Southee said. "It's still pretty evenly poised between us. They've got a good side and they're coming off a loss and with a point to prove. They'll be hungry to turn the tournament around and grow some momentum.
"They were so dominant for so long, but those players all retired at the same time, so it left a massive gap and I guess they're still trying to fill it. You have to understand that the players that left were exceptional and you're not going to replace them overnight.
"But they've still got some great players. Look at Shane Watson and David Warner: on their day they can tear a side apart. And they have bowlers like Clint McKay, who has a great one day record. They've shown that they aren't a poor side, but they'll be disappointed in the results they've produced of late."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo