England v New Zealand, Champions Trophy, Group B, Jo'burg September 29, 2009

Time to push beyond for Vettori & Co.


Let it not be said that finding New Zealand in the semi-finals is a surprise. However, it continues to be a wonder. A small, rugby-besotted nation with a population not much more than Andheri, a suburb in Mumbai, has made reaching the final stages of world events somewhat an inevitability. When asked about it, Daniel Vettori, whose voice and looks could make him a brooding Hollywood star, said, matter-of-fact, that this is what his nation expects of them.

And why not? Always unfancied, always lacking in star power but never in pluck and spirit, they have done it through the ages, and through all the changes one-day cricket has undergone. They reached the final four of the inaugural World Cup in 1975 and have done it four more times since. This will be their third semi-final appearance in the Champions Trophy, a tournament that began in 1998. They also managed a similar feat in the Benson and Hedges World Championship in 1985 and the first World Twenty20 in 2007. Bring on the big stage, and the little men of international cricket rise, over and over again.

They came to South Africa from a miserable series in Sri Lanka, lost their main allrounder before a ball had been bowled; were thrashed by South Africa in the first match; their big-hitting opening batsman went out with a muscle pull after the second game; one of their quick bowlers went out before their final match; and his replacement arrived with an intestinal infection, and consequently, eight kilograms lighter. And they needed to win this match, or lose it only by a small margin, to stay in the tournament.

Put in to bat by Sri Lanka in the previous match, on a pitch that was expected to favour the quick bowlers, their batsmen responded so spectacularly that it became impossible to judge how poorly the Sri Lankans had bowled, or in fact how juicy the pitch was.

It was a different strip today, and it was certainly more helpful to fast bowlers. Crucially, though, the New Zealand bowlers knew how to bowl on it. That they were all much taller than the Sri Lankans bowlers was certainly an advantage. But obliging pitches can often seduce bowlers to lose the plot. It's a terrible cliché, bowling in the right areas, but that's what the New Zealanders did. The length was perfect, not too short, and in fact, every now and then, fuller than the batsman expected. The pitch had cracks, and some grass, and balls that climbed off a length hustled the batsman, and ones that were pitched up got the wickets.

Till today, Shane Bond had had a poor tournament. He was unable to make an impact against South Africa, and was carted around by Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene in the next match. Today, he found his mark from the beginning, making the ball rear and deviate off the pitch, and then claiming his victim with sharp, fuller balls. There was no let-up from Kyle Mills from the other end, and then from Grant Elliott, making a return to his 'home ground'.

Were England carried away by the monstrosity of their previous innings against South Africa? Owais Shah's dismissal suggested that. His attempt to slog-whip a rising ball from way outside the off stump was so outrageous that it was impossible to pull off. Paul Collingwood and Eoin Morgan, the other heroes of that run-fest in Centurion, also perished trying to fight fire with brimstone, but what was the guarantee that a more cautious approach would have been profitable?

"The other option would have been to wait and wait and wait for bad balls," Andrew Strauss said later. But for how long? "It (playing shots) looks good when it comes off, and looks bad when it doesn't. There is no harm playing your shots and this is certainly the way we are going to go." To be fair, England didn't have a lot of luck. But Strauss offered no excuses. "We were soundly beaten," he said.

In fact, when they batted, New Zealand showed the merit of an adventurous approach on a tough pitch for the batsmen. Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill, opening for the first time in the tournament, swung hard and often. A couple flew over the slips, and a top-edge landed outside the ropes behind the wicketkeeper. But as evident from the struggle of the batsmen who came later, without those runs at the top, the result could have been different. It got close enough in the end.

The pitches at Wanderers have come for much attention, and some criticism. It is early for cricket in these parts of the world, and perhaps there has not been enough preparation time for the tracks to bind. But Vettori, whose team will play the semi-final at this ground, put the matter in perspective: "We play on enough featherbeds around the world, there is nothing wrong in batsmen being challenged once in a while."

The biggest challenge for his team lies ahead. Nine semi-finals is a great story, but the worry for New Zealand is that it also gets awry from here. They have gone past this only once: having achieved what's par for them, it is now time to push beyond.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Peter on September 30, 2009, 20:04 GMT

    @ Rick T. You didn't make your point very clear, thats why sanchez didn't get it. i was about to write the same thing but saw sanchez beat me to it.

    After reading your comment again I get your point, but it took a bit of reading, lots of comparisons but couldn't figure out where you were going with it.

    I guess thats why Sambit Bal is paid to write, he's damn good at it.

    Great article Sambit, as a kiwi its nice to be in the spotlight occasionally, we are no superstar team and have a small home base of supporters but these big events make everyone take notice of us for a few days and I enjoy it. But when this is all over test cricket resumes for the major nations and we go and sit on the sidelines with the occasianal test match in between.

    excellent article.

  • Garry on September 30, 2009, 19:22 GMT

    "always lacking in star power", give me a break! compare man for man vs say England and in stats they blow them away, Bond has a average of 20 with the ball, Guptil 47 with the bat and strike rate of 84, Vettori is one of the best ODI bowlers, Mills still at the top of the ODI rankings? Ryder averages 35 and a strike rate of 93 (handy bowler and brilliant fielder), McCullum the best WICKET KEEPER for mine and there is a reason he fetchers a high price in the IPL, Oram was ranked number 1 allrounder till he lost form, Taylor averages 36 and a strike rate of 83... enough of this condescending talk already.

  • Rickey on September 30, 2009, 10:02 GMT

    SANCHEZ - In addition to my last comment, just look at the headline of the article "Time to push beyond ..." and the last 2 sentences. The author is suggesting that NZ has a bad record once we get to the semis. As I have shown, that is not correct.

  • Rickey on September 30, 2009, 9:56 GMT

    SANCHEZ - YOU have misunderstood MY point. The writer of the article clearly suggests in the last paragraph that although having reached the semis 8 times previously is great, that NZ's performance once we get there is terrible (or 'awry' as the writer puts it). My comment shows that in fact our performance in the major tournaments is very good and is only bettered by 4 countries: Australia, West Indies, India and Sri Lanka.

  • Michael on September 30, 2009, 7:44 GMT

    Rick_T: you seem to have missed the point, although New Zealand's achievements aren't extraordinarily better than other countries the fact that a country dominated by rugby and with a population of a little over 4million has as you put it identical stats as South Africa and England, countries with populations of 49millions and 61million not to mention Pakistan with 167.5million, it's amazing. With the resources available by all rights NZ should be competing with Kenya, Bermuda, Scotland and The Netherlands not the big guns like India, Pakistan, Australia and South Africa. Maybe you could compare them to the West Indies but I don't know the population count or the countries that WI consist of. The point is that NZ doesn't have any superstars that would make a world 11 or feature in almanacs in the future but they still manage to fight above their weight in world cricket.

  • Srinivasan on September 30, 2009, 7:33 GMT

    I have always been a fan of the black caps.. they never cease to surprise in ODIs as they play as a team and not as individuals!..anyone from their no 1 to no 11 are capable of rescuing their team on a given day. one of the main reasons is the fabulous dan whos indeed the man during crisis. i've never seen him having a bad day at office with the ball. he always delivers in each and every match if not with wickets but with a measly economy. nowadays, he even bats well if the NZ top order gets skitted off at a paltry score!.. i hope these guys pull off a great upset this champs trophy. it will do a lot of good for cricket in NZ which has less than a 70 first class players

  • Simon on September 30, 2009, 7:06 GMT

    MVGLW states if england WANTED to they could have scored over 200 runs. What a load of rubbish. England have strung together a couple of good performances in this tournament but they are not that good that they could have scored over 200 on THAT wicket. I believe that if this had been a must win match , with the pressure on England, the chances were better of them scoring a lower total than their140 odd that they did score. Look at the wickets that fell and except for Owais Shas effort tell me which of the dismissals were manufactured?, point out to me where did England turn down run scoring oppurtunities? When did englands bowlers stop trying for wickets? To compare their effort with Sri lankas is laughable, please tell me that if you were to pick a composite side of the two teams which of srilankas batsmen would be pushed out by an England one? despite englands recent victory over srilanka I dont think you need to look at any stats to answer that one

  • Sam on September 30, 2009, 6:02 GMT

    New Zealand are a great one day side. The fifty over format suits them and when their attacking batsmen hit form they are as good as any team. As evidenced in the last couple of Chappell Hadlee series, New Zealand can dominate Australia in the fifty over format. In the first series New Zealand set a world record run chase twice against Australia. In the most recent series in Australia New Zealand should have won but were denied at the last minute by rain. There is no one dominant team in international cricket at the moment which is what makes it so good to watch.

  • Rickey on September 30, 2009, 5:34 GMT

    So NZ have made 8 semi finals (excluding current tournament) and only progressed once to the final (which they won)? Only problem is that exactly the same stats apply to South Africa. They have made the semis 8 times and lost 7 of them. Another point of comparison is England. They have made the semis 6 times (excluding current tournament), progressed to the final 4 times and lost all of them. Would you rather make the final 4 times and lose all of them or make it once and win it? Another comparison is Pakistan, while they have made the semis 9 times and progressed to the final 4 times, they have won 1 major tournament. Only Australia and Pakistan have made the semis more often than NZ. Australia, West Indies, India and Sri Lanka are the only teams to win more than 1 major tournament. While the stats in the above story are true, South Africa has identical stats and England and Pakistan have similar stats to NZ. That's half of the major teams in International cricket!

  • John on September 30, 2009, 5:28 GMT

    This is why I prefer to follow the Black Caps rather than the All Blacks - they're not really expected to win so everything's a bonus. Inconsistency is what makes sport unpredictable and I don't really think the Black Caps stand out on that one. And who cares what the journalists back home think - they get paid for words rather than IQ points.

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