Shuffled Taylor feels burden of McCullum void
There has hardly been a New Zealand press conference in this World T20 where their interviewees haven't been asked about how they are coping without Brendon McCullum, the inspirational captain, the flamboyant leader. The loss of the most experienced batsman, however, is not talked about a lot because McCullum didn't always bat like experienced batsmen do, in the orthodox sense. That job was Ross Taylor's, and in this tournament the burden has only increased.
In a way, it is down to the absence of McCullum the batsman. He was the power house at the top, which is crucial on slow Indian pitches where scoring runs after the Powerplay is an effort. Colin Munro coming out and switch-hitting in the first over of the opening clash of this World T20 might have seemed a little rash, but the plan for New Zealand is to promote the big hitters to do all the scoring while the ball is new and while mis-hits are likelier to clear the infield and run away for fours on quick outfields. Corey Anderson follows Munro in the batting order.
All that has left Taylor in an unfamiliar territory. He likes to build his innings before he can go big. At times, batting at No. 5, he doesn't have the time to do so. Coach Mike Hesson explained the move in Mohali. "Our middle order has probably lacked a bit of power in the past, and we think here we need a bit more power at the top," Hesson had said. "Colin Munro and Corey provide that, and also provide a good left-right combination. Also, we feel as the ball slows up we need a bit more experience through the middle. To have Ross, Grant and Luke Ronchi come out at key times in the game, that's where we think we need that experience."
When Taylor was asked about the move earlier in the tournament, he joked it was not his decision, but this team is full of players happy to move out of their comfort zones for the good of the team. "It is definitely easy to score upfront," Taylor said. "But you still have to play fearless and aggressive cricket but smart cricket as well. Martin Guptill and Munro's job is to get us off to a flying start. Some days it will come off and some days it won't. But this team bats right down to 8 or 9, still have the confidence to go out there and play shots."
League games done, we might have a body of work to analyse how the move has worked. Taylor's own 57 runs in three innings at a strike rate of 118.75 might be an unfairly harsh assessment. For one this has been a tough tournament for No. 5s. Glenn Maxwell scored 109 runs there at a strike rate of 129.76, the best effort at that position. JP Duminy scored 83 at 172.91, but he got only two innings there.
Moreover the starts made by New Zealand need to be looked at. At the end of the Powerplay in these three matches, they were 33 for 2 against India, which was above par, 58 for 0 against Australia, and 55 for 0 against Pakistan. The quick starts, a possible result of the freedom derived from knowledge that Taylor is there in the middle order, proved crucial to all three wins.
Taylor himself has had a better tournament than the number of runs scored by him suggest. Against Pakistan, his 36 off 23 gave New Zealand the final impetus that took the game out of Pakistan's reach. Against India and Australia he struggled to get going, but he has always looked a cover drive on the walk or one sweetly-timed slog sweep away from hitting form. In the dead rubber, against Bangladesh, he was moved to No. 4, but that might have more to do with the fact that the second wicket fell in the ninth over, and also perhaps to give Taylor some time in the middle before the knockouts.
While the world is wondering what next New Zealand will pull out of the bowling hat, where Taylor bats and how he bats is just as important a decision. The move seems to have worked so far, but Taylor would have wanted to make a more defining contribution. He has had the opportunities too. The knockouts are not a bad time to do so.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo