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October 2, 2009
Having already lost three key players to injury, New Zealand could be without Grant Elliott, Man of the Match against England, for the semi-final against Pakistan. Daniel Vettori, the captain, was confident though that New Zealand could overcome their semi-final jinx [only one final after eight appearances in the last four of global 50-over events] against Pakistan at the Wanderers on Saturday.
"The momentum is with us, I think," he said. "It's a much more preferable to go into the semi-finals, knowing that we've won two big games and qualified top, whereas in the past we have scraped through. We go into the game with confidence. Their [Pakistan's] spin bowling over the last year is very impressive. [Saeed] Ajmal and [Shahid] Afridi combine well, and coupled with a very good seam attack, and no obvious weakness in their batting, we know they can be a very good side. But they can be a little inconsistent like us, I suppose, and I'm hoping we can catch them on an off day."
Having already lost Jesse Ryder, Jacob Oram and Daryl Tuffey to injury, New Zealand are keeping their fingers crossed over Elliott. "Grant took part in training this morning and had an injection," Vettori said. "It works when he bats but not when he bowls. We'll leave it till the last possible minute before making a decision. It's frustrating but we're used to it. We've been through it before with New Zealand, even in the Twenty20 World Cup. It brought the group a little tighter and there was the realisation that the senior players have to step up more."
Having struggled to come to terms with slow pitches on a six-week-long tour of Sri Lanka, New Zealand have found the conditions in South Africa much more to their liking, especially in Johannesburg, where they beat both Sri Lanka and England. "There's not really any secret to playing well here," Vettori said. "We've come across very different wickets, and you have to have ability to adapt. This looks like a Sri Lankan wicket, with lots of runs in it. If so, we're going to have to step up with the bat. We wanted to qualify top. That was a real incentive. Once we got in front, we wanted to finish it off. Wanderers has been good for us and we wanted to stay here, and have an extra day especially with our injuries."
On Thursday night, New Zealand won the Spirit of Cricket award at the ICC's annual ceremony. Vettori, though, wants to leave South Africa with more than one bauble. "That will be the ultimate, if we can couple that with a major tournament. It means we are playing the game in the right spirit and winning games as well. There's a perception that the spirit of cricket [award] goes to teams that are a little bit inconsistent and that's probably fair for us at the moment. If we can turn it round and win a major tournament, it'll be a great achievement for us."
Having lost in the semi-finals of the 2006 Champions Trophy [to Australia] and the 2007 World Cup [to Sri Lanka], Vettori also felt that the time was ripe to create some history. "We've always made the semi-finals and lost them," he said. "We want to go past that, we want to change the script a little bit. Personally, it will be one of the most satisfying things I could achieve in my career if I lead New Zealand in a final. You never know what can happen after that.
"There's a lot of pressure on us to go past the semi-final, but they [Pakistan] are higher ranked and performing better than us of late. I always felt confident of making the last four, and this is a real test for us now."
Australia or England await if Pakistan can be overcome. "It doesn't matter who we face in the final, we just want to get there," Vettori said. "Any team will be tough. I suppose Australia have been playing the better cricket of late."
Nearly a decade ago, the brilliance of Chris Cairns inspired New Zealand to the only trophy win in their history. Vettori, who has carried forward the allrounder's flame, has the opportunity to emulate his one-time team-mate. They may be rank outsiders, and a team ravaged by injury, but don't write off these New Zealanders just yet.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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