Having won the inaugural World Test Championship earlier in June, New Zealand now have the rare chance to clinch another world title in the same year as they prepare for the forthcoming T20 World Cup in the UAE. Head coach Gary Stead said that New Zealand aren't distracted by that prospect and that their main focus is to first qualify for the semi-finals.
"Every tournament you go in, you go in with high hopes, hope to win games and put yourself in a position to achieve that," Stead said during a virtual media interaction after arriving in the UAE. "I guess our first one is focusing on one game at a time, but the main goal is to get to that semi-finals stage and if you're there, you'll know that you're only two wins away from a title. We're in a tough pool, I genuinely think there are six-seven teams that could win this tournament, and I guess that's good for world cricket as well."
New Zealand are placed in Group 2, which also includes former champions India and Pakistan. They will first run into Pakistan in Sharjah on October 26 and there could potentially be some tension around the clash after New Zealand recently called off their limited-overs tour of Pakistan, citing security concerns. Newly appointed PCB chairman Ramiz Raja was particularly critical of New Zealand's abrupt pullout, promising to avenge the cancellation when Pakistan face them at the World Cup.
Stead, however, downplayed the chatter around the game. "I'm not sure if there's any more tension on it from our perspective," he said. "Obviously, what happened in Pakistan was sad for Pakistan cricket, their players and also our players who missed out on that opportunity as well. We can't change what has happened there; all we can do is, I guess, prepare for the tournament, and we face Pakistan first up. I'm sure it will be an exciting game. We've always had good games with Pakistan cricket and this one will be no different."
Stead said that New Zealand are also wary of the challenging conditions they could face in the UAE. They will play two games in Sharjah, where pitches have become sluggish after being relaid and as many in Dubai, where tracks have slowed down at the fag end of this IPL, before rounding off their league stage with the match against Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi. It helps New Zealand that ten players in their World Cup squad are currently part of the IPL in the UAE and the likes of Martin Guptill and Ish Sodhi, who had arrived in the UAE earlier from Pakistan, have been training with Thilan Samaraweera.
"We've taken it [mental health] very seriously and tried to be upfront with our players and stuff around how we sit with it."Gary Stead, NZ head coach
"I've watched a fair bit of the IPL," Stead said. "It looks like there are three different surfaces and even as the tournament progresses, there seems to be the odd bit of rogue score - a very high-scoring game in Abu Dhabi, where 190 got chased down but the norm has been anywhere between 120 through to 150 mark. With the three grounds, I guess, they will provide different options and opportunities that we need to consider as well. We will certainly be calling on the expertise of and knowledge of those guys that have been playing in the IPL - what they can add to our intel as well."
Stead stressed that the mental well-being of the players and staff is something that is of utmost priority for New Zealand. Stead, the rest of the support staff, and wicketkeeper-batter Devon Conway are currently in isolation for six days before they could head out and train.
"We've taken it [mental health] very seriously and tried to be upfront with our players and stuff around how we sit with it," Stead said. "We've also brought John Quinn with us to look after the well-being of our staff and players who are over here at the World Cup and then John will go home and will be replaced by Rod Corbin - they are guys within our mental skills network of providers back home. Those guys are there just to make sure they are checking in with all our players and staff and making sure we are taking that really, really seriously as well.
"When you sit in a room for long periods of time, it's not always that easy. It's perhaps a novelty for the first day or two, but then when you look at the same four walls time and time again, it can be difficult. That's, I guess, the world we live in at the moment, but also understanding that we're in a privileged position of being able to tour around the world as well and play these World Cups, which is still exciting for us."
As part of New Zealand's plans to rotate players and even staff over the winter, Stead himself was given a break for the tours to Bangladesh and Pakistan, with Wellington Firebirds head coach Glenn Pocknall standing in for him. Stead was pleased with the progress of the fringe players who stepped up in spin-friendly conditions and ran a near-full-strength Bangladesh side close before eventually losing the series 3-2.
"It was definitely a different experience [watching the Bangladesh tour from the outside]," Stead said. "I'm really proud of the way the guys played over there. That was a relatively inexperienced Black Caps team that went over there when you consider what we normally had and to be able to take two games off a real quality side was encouraging, and to be in the running for all five matches was also very encouraging. So pleased with the development of the team there. We've planned out well in advance because of the well-being aspect of all our players and this was going to be the way we would tour for the winter. I guess, no surprises from our sense of how it's playing out."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo