<
>

Leaders in their field: New Zealand sweat the small stuff in big win

play
Mills: NZ finally have depth in their bowling (1:38)

After bowling Sri Lanka out for 136, Kyle Mills believes New Zealand now have the bowling depth to match India and Australia. (1:38)

The ground filled quickly, the weather produced its best, the skies all powder blue, no greys, and plenty of sunshine. People had travelled a good distance, some even from Birmingham to support their team, but Cardiff's World Cup opener ended up being what in the southern hemisphere is called a fizzer. On a green wicket, the grass cover meant to hold together the dry surface beneath, New Zealand's seamers were disciplined and efficient in what were conditions very similar to home and the Sri Lanka batsmen as a whole, barring captain Dimuth Karunaratne, obliged.

When given 136 to chase, New Zealand's openers carved out the bowling and the match ended around the time when a full ODI conventionally returns from its first-innings lunch break. Martin Guptill batted at breakneck speed and in break-spirit mode, depositing one ball out of the ground and maybe into the river (it didn't come back) and New Zealand did what they intended to do in this World Cup. Cardiff has fired the shot to let the rest of the field know that while the Big Three or Four (England, India, Australia and South Africa) grab more notice, New Zealand are ignored at everyone's peril. This on a day when Tim Southee sat out due to a niggle and Trent Boult's only wicket was Suranga Lakmal in the second-last over of the innings.

ALSO READ: Karunaratne's record in Sri Lanka's World Cup low

As efficient as they were with ball and bat, what also ran through New Zealand's performance in Cardiff was the industry-strength adhesive that keeps their other skills together. As a team, New Zealand are (by and large, let it be said, as the World Cup quarter-final v South Africa, Dhaka 2011 suddenly popped into mind) neither demonstrative, emotional nor fiery. That magic glue, their fielding, too, is smooth, noiseless almost, where ground is covered and advantage extracted in quiet, swift movement.

The most memorable pieces of Cardiff's largely drama-less, incident-free match will not be New Zealand's pieces of fielding, which would have been forgotten among the 280-odd balls bowled. Pieces of fielding, mind, not catches or run-outs, or earth-shaking 'turning points', just bread-and-butter stuff, done with the respect given to the metaphorical jam.

  • It begins with Boult (6.4). In Matt Henry's second over, Karunaratne flicks the ball off his hip, and it is racing to the rope; Boult at long leg, has just bowled the previous over and makes a short sprint, he knows he must stop the ball or it will be four. He dives forward like he were made of water, not of bone and muscle, and flows into its path, diverts it, gets to his feet races over to pick up the ball and return it. One run.

  • 13.6 - Angelo Mathews is in, he is the one capable of absorbing pressure along with Karunaratne and taking Sri Lanka away from the mess that is 58 for 4. Mathews latches on to a low-rising Lockie Ferguson short one and pulls. Mathews is a big burly fellow, he has gone six balls without scoring and the shot is full-blooded. Four when it leaves his bat. Boult is at short midwicket and throws himself left to stop it dead. Dot ball.

  • 16.3 - Sri Lanka have lost two wickets in five balls, the innings is falling apart but Thisara Perera can counterattack and his back-foot drive off Colin de Grandhomme is handsomely rolling through extra cover with Kane Williamson in pursuit. Inches from the boundary line it is pulled in and whipped back. Three runs. When it's 73 for 6, such a big deal about a single? Of course. It is Williamson, he has covered massive, enormous ground but looks like he's not even sweating. There is no huffing and puffing.

  • 18.5 - Karunaratne is now trying to make the switch from his Test-cricket-like innings to a faster pace,because it is 84 for 6. He forces Boult off his back foot, slightly outside the off, it is a crisp, clean shot. It deserved the runs on it, had not Jimmy Neesham, ambidextrous cricketer, all-around social media wit, dived low and stopped the ball. No run.

These were blink-and-miss it snatches in a match which will be remembered for New Zealand's bold statement in CWC19. A scan of ESPNcricinfo's commentary and scoring teams found that there were no misfields or overthrows from New Zealand during the Sri Lanka innings. The only chance put down was Thisara Perera off Mitchell Santner, a thumping drive which was parried by the bowler towards mid-off. New Zealand may have started with the good fortune of winning the toss on a green one, and they were never under pressure in the match. But all through, they certainly fielded like they were, where every run conceded marked a step away from where they want to go.

Fielding of such a standard is almost a non-negotiable in World Cups. Guptill said later that the event had "great fielding sides all over the placeā€¦ If you can be one of the top two or three of the best fielding teams in the competition you can save a lot of runs and go a long way to winning the competition." New Zealand's group draw gives them Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before they meet India in Nottingham on June 13. By that time, if they are only a couple of wins away from a semi-final spot, it is the small, forgettable stuff of the kind we saw on Saturday in Cardiff, that will have taken them that far.