Fleming prepares for uncharted waters
Just as real men aren't afraid to cry, so Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's captain, hasn't been afraid to admit to the nerves and anxieties that have been coursing through his squad for the past few weeks. But these are not nerves of fear - they are nerves of acknowledgement, for Fleming realizes that his Kiwis could be on the verge of something special. On four previous occasions the team has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup but never once have they been able to go on. This time, however, it could be different.
No longer the bridesmaids Fleming has marshalled New Zealand's fortunes in two previous World Cups, reaching the semi-finals in 1999 and the Super Sixes four years later, but only now, after a decade as his country's captain, does he think his team finally belongs at the top table. "We got to the [semis] in 1999 on the back of a couple of excellent performances from [Geoff] Allott and [Roger] Twose," he admitted. "I'm not sure we really believed we should be there. This year we feel worthy, and from a confidence point of view, that's a big shift."
Forewarned is forearmed Ominously for New Zealand, the only two sides they have lost to in this competition are Sri Lanka and Australia, the two opponents they are most likely to come up against if the final is to be their destiny. They were comprehensive beatings as well - by six wickets and 215 runs respectively in Grenada last week - but plenty was learnt in the course of those matches.
That was especially true against the Sri Lankans. Forty-eight hours after a comprehensive loss, New Zealand had learnt from their self-confessed mistakes, did the right thing at the toss, picked an extra spinner in Jeetan Patel, and marched through to the next round with a convincing win over South Africa. "Bouncebackability" is the vogue phrase for such tendencies. "We are a team that's got to be focussed on one game at a time," said Fleming. "Confidence is very high because it's a one-off scenario."
Unorthodox yet familiar Sri Lanka memorably hid three of their trump cards - Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga - from the Australians in their Super Eights match last week. It made sound tactical sense, because Sri Lanka had not faced them for more than a year, but there would have been little point to taking such a similar approach to the Kiwis. The two sides have squared up for 14 ODIs since the last World Cup and as many as six in the last six months.
Sri Lanka have the statistical advantage with four wins out of six, and a psychological one as well, seeing as two of those wins were achieved in the most alien conditions imaginable - the greentops of Napier and Auckland in December and January. But at least it means that New Zealand have been able to plan for the threat they are to be presented with on Tuesday. In their final practice session, Chris Martin was winging down round-arm deliveries at the batsmen in the nets, while a coterie of local spinners were trundling in from around the wicket, in a clear replication of what is to follow.
Bond versus Malinga "What he does seems to be pretty simple, in a respectful way," said Fleming of Malinga the slinger. And in a sense he's spot on. It'll be a diet of 90mph swinging yorkers at the death, and a couple of savage bursts in the Powerplays as well. That doesn't make him any easier to play, mind you, although the same could be said of his counterpart, Shane Bond, who is indisputably New Zealand's trump card.
Bond missed the drubbing against Australia with a gastric complaint but he is expected to be fit and fully functional for tomorrow's showdown. His specific threat is pretty easy to imagine as well - full-length, 90mph, late-swinging outswingers - although only once in this competition has his wicket-taking ability been neutralised, and that was by the Sri Lankans in Grenada. "Shane is obviously their strike bowler," said Jayawardene, "but if he is off the mark we have guys who can take him on. If he's on the mark we will respect him and play him accordingly. It's all about adapting and making smart decisions."
Top, middle, bottom Sri Lanka, as Fleming has admitted throughout, have perhaps the best balanced bowling attack in the competition. But it comes at a price. "One area they'd like is more hitting power," said Fleming, who believes that early new-ball breakthroughs will leave Sri Lanka's lower-order vulnerable, especially in the probable absence of Farvez Maharoof, who is expected to make way for the fit-again Dilhara Fernando.
"If we can get wickets at the top, we're not faced with a scenario where you've got [to face] Symonds and Watson and Boucher and Pollock, who can destroy you in the last ten overs," he said. "They have a couple of batsmen who have dominated world cricket in certain roles. [Sanath] Jayasuriya has been very aggressive; he's a key wicket to get, while the captain [Jayawardene] and [Kumar] Sangakkara more or less hold the innings together."
Jayasuriya and Jayawardene have both made more than 400 runs in the tournament while batting in the top three. New Zealand's strength, on the other hand, has been in the middle- to lower-order department. With the exception of Fleming himself, the bulk of the team's impetus has come from the superlative form of Scott Styris, with key contributions from the likes of Jacob Oram and Craig McMillan.
"Our senior players will be the key," said Fleming. "Players like Ross Taylor can come to the fore, and impact players like Brendon McCullum, but our key core of senior players should win the semi-final and final. The top three have to be more productive in these last two games. Our depth in batting has been our strength, but we know that when the top order fires we get scores that usually give us a win."
Bounce versus loop
Having seen how effective they were in New Zealand's home conditions, Fleming wasn't bluffing when he suggested that Sri Lanka were conditioned for any pitch surface. "But if there's bounce in the pitch that may give us an advantage," he added. "I'm certainly not advocating a massive short-ball approach, but thinking more in terms of what we can extract from our taller bowlers. It's not a massive advantage, but assessing the conditions will be key."
If New Zealand do put their faith in seam, however, it may well have to be at the expense of one of their unsung heroes of the tournament. Patel's absence in the Super Eights defeat against Sri Lanka was keenly felt, but with Daniel Vettori a shoo-in and Scott Styris in such fine restrictive form with the ball, something may have to give. "We've been very strong on horses for courses in terms of pitch conditions," said Fleming. "If it's going to turn or slow up and be quite dry, then [Jeets] is one of the first guys picked. But if you're going to give up a seaming option, you've got to make sure there's something worthwhile down the track."
Likely XI 1 Stephen Fleming (capt), 2 Peter Fulton, 3 Ross Taylor, 4 Craig McMillan, 5 Scott Styris, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 James Franklin, 9 Daniel Vettori, 10 Jeetan Patel, 11 Shane Bond.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo