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A peek inside New Zealand's methodical T20 surge

How New Zealand beat the odds to make their first T20 World Cup final

Deivarayan Muthu
Sure, New Zealand are the World Test Champions, and 50-over World Cup finalists, but not many gave them a chance to even qualify for the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup. They were pooled with three Asian teams - India, Pakistan and Afghanistan - all more familiar with UAE conditions. They lost their gun bowler Lockie Ferguson to injury hours before their tournament opener against Pakistan. They've also made some challenging selections on their way to their maiden T20 World Cup final. This is how New Zealand have made it.
Bold selection
Leading into the tournament, Ross Taylor was New Zealand's joint most-capped player in the shortest format, along with his best buddy Martin Guptill. Taylor did start the T20I home summer for New Zealand, against West Indies, in 2020-21, but the side moved away from him and handed opportunities to Devon Conway and Glenn Phillips in the middle order. Although Taylor has raised his ODI game to an all-new level, he has fallen behind the curve in T20 cricket and is no longer the hockey-swiping, slog-sweeping maverick he once was.
Phillips became that middle-order maverick instead and Conway the failsafe. Plus, both Phillips and Conway are multi-dimensional players. Phillips does everything - bat, bowl fastish offspin, field inside the ring as well as in the outfield, keep wicket part-time - and Conway has kept wicket on a more regular basis.
Conway's left-handedness and calmness - both in front of the stumps and behind it - was vital to New Zealand's balance until he suffered a bizarre self-inflicted injury during the semi-final against England.
The non-selection of Colin Munro was another hard call. He hadn't played for New Zealand since February 2020 but was still doing his thing in the BBL, PSL and CPL among other franchise tournaments. Munro's strike rate of 156.44 in T20I cricket is the fourth-highest overall among batters who have faced at least 150 balls in the format.
But Gary Stead, the head coach, reasoned that Munro hadn't appeared as regularly for New Zealand in the recent past and so he was omitted from the T20 World Cup squad.
Then, there is Finn Allen, the new kid on the block, who has a T20 strike rate of 171.02 - the second-highest among batters who have faced a minimum of 250 balls. Allen shellacked 71 off 29 balls in a rain-truncated T20I against Bangladesh to push his case for a World Cup spot. But New Zealand chose to go ahead with the incumbent Tim Seifert as Guptill's opening partner.
Role clarity
Seifert was, ultimately, unavailable for selection during the warm-ups first because he joined New Zealand's bubble late from the IPL and then after sustaining an abdominal strain.
So, Stead and Kane Williamson threw Daryl Mitchell, the finisher, into the top and were so impressed with his power and adaptability during the warm-ups that they decided to let him continue in that role for the rest of the tournament.
Stead and Williamson gave Mitchell the license to go after bowlers in the powerplay even though he had never opened in T20 cricket before this tournament. Mitchell responded by hitting over the top and even charging at mystery spinners like Varun Chakravarthy and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Against England in the semi-final in Abu Dhabi, Mitchell had a skittish start, but found a way past that and finished the chase with an unbeaten 72 off 47 balls.
New Zealand looked like they were a batter short at various stages, more so during that chase against England, with Mitchell Santner slotting in at No.7. Jimmy Neesham, however stepped up under pressure, pounding 27 off a mere 11 balls. "Try and hit every ball for six" was Neesham's plan and he didn't veer away from it one bit.
Trent Boult and Tim Southee, neither of whom played a single match during the 2016 T20 World Cup in India, now reunited to give New Zealand some new-ball bite. And Adam Milne, Ferguson's replacement, became their enforcer in the post-powerplay phase. Legspinner Ish Sodhi's role was to keep searching for wickets, while Santner tried to lock one end down.
Impact of T20 leagues and domestic structure
Seifert is likely to replace Conway in the final in what will be only his second game of the tournament. Seifert, though, is prepped and ready, having worked with spin-heavy Knight Riders sides in the CPL and the IPL.
As for Phillips, he honed his skills against spin while working with Ramnaresh Sarwan at Jamaica Tallawahs at the CPL. Phillips also made a big splash in the Hundred and the Vitality Blast. Nobody has hit more sixes than Phillips in T20 cricket (including the Hundred) in 2021.
Santner isn't an IPL regular for Chennai Super Kings - he was the only New Zealand player to not get a game this season - but the stint there and at Barbados Tridents at the CPL has made him a more-rounded white-ball bowler.
When the injury-plagued Milne tried to revive his white-ball career last year, he signed with the Sydney Thunder, having been released from his domestic contract with the blessing of the organisation. That move, and support from Central Districts, has put him back in the international spotlight.
Preparation and venues
It helped that ten of New Zealand's squad were involved in the IPL that preceded the World Cup. But the national team's preparations were largely disjointed, with New Zealand abruptly calling off the Pakistan tour. The likes of Guptill, Mark Chapman, and Mitchell worked with batting consultant Thilan Samaraweera in the UAE after flying out of Pakistan.
As for Conway, who was the only playing member to fly in from New Zealand, he had stints with Luke Ronchi in Wellington as he was recovering from the finger injury he sustained during the Hundred. Ronchi brings with him the experience of playing - and excelling - for Islamabad United in the PSL in these conditions.
Stead was keen to expand the coaching group for the World Cup. Shane Bond was roped in to assist Shane Jurgensen while Stephen Fleming, too, had a short stint with the side during the warm-ups after winning the IPL with CSK.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi's larger dimensions make it pretty difficult for batters to clear the boundaries. New Zealand aren't West Indies or England, and it actually aided their style of batting: accumulation of ones and twos. At these venues, fielding can make a real difference, as New Zealand showed, particularly against Afghanistan in what was a virtual quarter-final.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo