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September 23, 2009
In many ways, New Zealand are the polar opposite of South Africa. The South Africans appear assailed by self-doubt on the biggest stage, while New Zealand have an uncanny knack of raising their game for the marquee occasion. Both teams have identical records over the last two global events, having reached the ICC Champions Trophy semi-finals in 2006 and the last four of the World Cup a few months later. The similarity ended with the results. For New Zealand, those were two more examples of them punching above their weight. For South Africa, they were miserable reminders of their tendency to lose the plot when it mattered most.
On Thursday, the two teams clash in Centurion, with South Africa knowing that nothing less than victory will do. While the host nation reeled from the 55-run loss to Sri Lanka, Daniel Vettori, New Zealand's captain, insisted that the result would have no bearing on how they approached the game. "It doesn't make a lot of difference to us," he said. "We know we still have to turn up and play pretty well to beat a strong South African side. Sri Lanka played exceptionally well last night to beat them. We're under no illusions about how hard it's going to be."
Some were surprised by how dry and relatively slow the pitch was for the tournament opener, with conditions not a world apart from those on the subcontinent. Having just finished a tour of Sri Lanka, Vettori reckoned that his side would have the wherewithal to cope.
"The wicket was a lot better than we expected it to be," he said. "I'm not sure we're going to play on the same one or if we've got a new block, but it was a slow deck and suited the Sri Lankans more than the South Africans. It brings up the question whether we play two spinners and what the best tactics are on a wicket like that. It won't hurt us coming out of Sri Lanka after six weeks. We've played on wickets like this and hopefully we're ready. But it'll be a tough ask."
And while the lack of a full house for the opening game raised further questions about the future of the 50-over game, Vettori remains a fan, especially of the short-and-sweet Champions Trophy format. "I think it's great because it feels like every game is relevant," he said. "In the past, there have probably been a few warm-up-like games. Now, you have to turn up here ready to play and ready to win, otherwise you can get knocked out quickly. For me personally, the easiest solution to keep the ODI game relevant is to play fewer games.
"I don't think we need to tinker around with the format. I think we've played so much people get a bit sick of seeing it. If you reduce the amount of games, that is a quick-fix solution. For me personally, the format has produced an array of good cricketers and different styles as well. With the ODIs, you can still get a number of different cricketers who can succeed. If we take that away and keep tinkering with it, we'll lose those styles of cricketers. We're lucky in cricket that we have three formats and people can enjoy all three. If we keep changing, we might lose some of the fan base. As long as we don't overload the public, we can get a nice balance between the three."
New Zealand started their preparation with a loss to the Warriors, but then upset the form-book by thrashing India. "Hopefully, we can take the confidence of the India game into our first match," said Vettori. "Particularly our batting, where we've struggled a lot. But a couple of guys stepped up and to make 300 against an Indian side is always something that makes me happy as captain, and it pleases the team as well. The challenge is to put a score on the board and defend it as a bowling unit."
If they can execute that plan effectively on Thursday , there will be more than a few South African finger-nails bitten to the quick.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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