These are desperate times for New Zealand. On better days, a game against Kenya should not be a thing to be fussed about and they would actually be worrying how not to get complacent ahead of the contest. Instead, they feel the pressure of a "must-win game". "Intensity will be even bigger because this is a must win game for us," Daniel Vettori said. "We will be strong and play well."
For the past few months, New Zealand have been psyching themselves to look to the future. The recent past has been dispiriting: a whitewash in Bangladesh, losses in India, defeats against Pakistan at home, and a soul-crushing pasting against India in the warm-up game. Gloom shadowed them everywhere. Harsh criticism floated up first: "We batted like dicks," was the frank assessment of the then coach Mark Greatbach. Saner post-mortem followed with the inclusion of John Wright as the new coach. The losses continued, meanwhile.
Brendon McCullum recently agreed to the assessment that they had forgotten how to win. Will tomorrow's game against Kenya be the first step out of the sordid mess or a further slide into the abyss? Daniel Vettori, the captain, tried to sound positive in the pre-game conference. "We are sure to up our confidence levels after our match tomorrow. It is quite a fluid concept when we play bigger teams but our guys have the abilities to bounce back. But I prefer to look at that rather than dwelling on the past."
The past though couldn't be shoved under the carpet. "We acknowledge the comments [about New Zealand being low on confidence] since we lost a lot of games in recent times and they were disappointing performances, particularly in the sub-continent, but hope we can look at the World Cup as a fresh start."
The first game against Kenya shouldn't be difficult to win but Vettori, understandably, chose to be cautious. "The hardest thing about playing a qualifier is that you do not see much of them. Some of their players will be a bit of a surprise. You prepare may be after seeing them on television. In a way it is a challenge but it does not matter as we got to turn up and play tomorrow." It's something they haven't done well in the recent past.
Things could kickstart if the batsmen start performing. A line-up that reads Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder, Ross Taylor, an in-form Martin Guptill, Scott Styris and Jacob Oram should make the Kenyans sweat. Even in the defeat against India in the warm-up game, the way Brendon and Guptill batted against the seamers would have given a lot of heart to New Zealand fans. It's their batting against spin that has let them down. And their bowling.
The bowlers, especially the seamers, have been so lacklustre that Vettori was prompted to say that their bowling coach Allan Donald "is even now bowling better than all fast bowlers". It was meant to be a compliment to Donald but it didn't seem way off the mark. "We have fixed too much on batting and that does not give us enough in bowling," Vettori said. "Allan has been an exciting addition to the team because he is bringing obviously his own personal skills and his own confidence. Ever since he came on board, he speaks with a position of authority to our players and the guys listen when he says what it takes to succeed in the sub-continent and other parts of the world."
New Zealand have a selection worry ahead of the game as Nathan McCullum is a doubtful starter after running high temperature yesterday and being kept under observation in an hospital. He returned for a light training session this morning but it's unlikely they will take a risk by playing him against Kenya. "As of now, we plan to play three pacers and two spinners. It depends on Nathan's fitness. We will play two spinners and look at the possibilities in balancing if the third one is coming in. I think there is plenty of runs on the track, if you bowl well, you can restrict the batting side. Generally, it is a batting wicket. It is incredibly difficult for the fast bowlers on these kinds of wickets to make their presence felt." For New Zealand's sake, they must.