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