During the interval, like it has done all tournament, it rained. Not long enough to cause an abandonment, not even enough to shorten the match. But long enough to have its say. It had rained the day before too. Heavily, for long hours. The pitch at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff was covered, waiting to be revealed. When the covers were removed in the morning, there it was – grass. Moisture too. Enough to make everyone excited at the prospect of how the ball would behave.
Blustery conditions only made the situation intriguing. When Kane Williamson won the toss, he had no hesitation in choosing to field. His counterpart Eoin Morgan said that he would have done the same. The Kiwis had an unchanged side, certain that they would push England the same way they had challenged the Australians.
Short boundaries down the ground were compensated by long ones on the side. But it soon transpired that run scoring was not going to be as difficult as it had seemed. There was good bounce off the pitch and the grass was of the drier kind. The ball could stop on the batsman but it was a two-paced track.
Tim Southee understood it. His control was immaculate, better than any of his teammates. He did not have the wickets to show for it—until the final over, at least—but his pace held enough ambiguity for the English batsmen to be uncertain. Wickets, though, were picked up infrequently by others, ensuring England did not run away with the match.
But New Zealand, not for the only time in the day, was afflicted by familiar concerns. In the past year, before this match, the Kiwis had been conceding 8.23 runs per over in the final powerplay. Seven teams have done better than them in this period and one could see why. Wickets did not stem the run flow. Eighty-nine runs were scored by England after the 40th over, even though their innings folded up three deliveries early.
But 311 was gettable. Sure, New Zealand had chased more than 300 successfully just once since the 2015 World Cup. But that was against England in Southampton two summers ago. And only last year, Pakistan had defeated Eoin Morgan’s side by chasing a 300-plus total down in Cardiff. It could be done.
But there was rain in the air, like it had been for a considerable part of England’s innings. The clouds finally obliged when the players were nursing the first innings’s exertions. When they returned after 45 minutes, not much had seemingly changed. But it had.
It took Luke Ronchi a ball to go. The explosive batsmen’s stumps exploded behind him, his uncertain defence shattered. It set the tone for a scrutiny, which was at its severest for the first six overs. The rains had added an element of unpredictability to the pitch. There was uneven bounce and countless deliveries landed on the splice of the bat.
Sometimes, the ball just went through, leaving the batsmen swishing at air. But in Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson, New Zealand had two mature heads. Only 40 runs arrived in the first ten overs but no further damage was caused. However, just when New Zealand thought it could assert itself, Guptill wasted a good start for the second game running. It was a sign of the things to come.
Ross Taylor joined Williamson thereafter. New Zealand still had reasons to be optimistic — it is the partnership with the third-best average (minimum 2500 runs) in ODI cricket history after all. The ball, though, kept doing funny things. In the space of three deliveries, both batsmen’s helmet bore the brunt of Liam Plunkett’s bowling. New Zealand was rattled.
Taylor boasted an average of 93.75 in his last five ODI innings against England but he was making sluggish progress; just 11 were scored off the first 26 balls. The pitch was lively and even Williamson was struggling to find a way out. But he is Kane Williamson, who always finds a way out. So he started shuffling down the wicket to the spinner Adil Rashid, and pulled Ben Stokes away. With the slightest movement of his feet, Willliamson began to derive advantage. It was risky at times but never cavalier.
Soon, the skipper had his fifth straight ODI fifty versus England. After 25 overs, New Zealand needed 177 more runs but eight wickets were still in their hands. The difficult phase of play was seemingly over. Williamson, once again, was going to nudge, pull and drive his way to victory. But the demons were not sleeping… yet.
Mark Wood could bring them to life. He was bowling into the breeze, like a man pushing a boulder over the mountain. No, not everyone is Sisyphus. Some have an easier task and they manage to finish it. Wood hit a back of the length ball which kept rising until it had a feel of Williamson’s glove. The Kiwi skipper was evasive, but could not pull himself away. His end had arrived.
Sadly for New Zealand, it meant that the side’s challenge was nearing its demise too. In the previous match, Williamson’s departure had sparked a collapse, which saw the Kiwis lose seven wickets for 37 runs in six overs. On Tuesday, the last eight batsmen were dismissed in the space of 80 deliveries for 65 runs. It is not a bad thing to depend on a batsman with superlative powers like Williamson. But the absence of a challenge, once the captain leaves the field, was staggering.
Ross Taylor could have led the charge but he never really settled in and went for an unimpressive 39 off 59 deliveries. Neil Broom again flattered to deceive with a 21-ball 11. Jimmy Neesham and Corey Anderson tried to do what they do best but the rising required rate got the better of them. The final nail in the coffin was hammered in the 45th over.
The previous 10 ODI meetings between these sides had produced five wins each. But in Cardiff, they were not equally matched. England is an ODI side in peak form at the moment; New Zealand can still muster moments of genuine quality but is beset by inconsistency. If the Kiwis’s worries are not enough already, Kane Williamson might be in line for a suspension as his side took four hours to bowl its overs out on Tuesday.
Of course, all is not over yet. New Zealand could post a win over Bangladesh on Friday and if England defeats Australia the following day, a place in the semi-finals will await Williamson’s men. In the 2013 Champions Trophy, a rain-forced abandonment with Australia was followed by a defeat to England in another match affected by weather. On that occasion, though, a close win over Sri Lanka in the campaign opener had proven to be not enough for qualification.
Again on Tuesday, New Zealand was the casualty to England’s superiority in a contest influenced by rain. Although it was not a shortened encounter, the elements did not take a distanced view of the proceedings. Maybe, they will once again intervene on Friday or Saturday. If they act unfavourably, an early exit will become a distinct possibility for the Kiwis.
But even if the rain stays away, what will New Zealand do if Williamson instead has to stay away? That is a hypothetical question at the moment but even if he plays, one cannot be sure the team can deal with his failure. The facts on the ground are not entirely convincing. However, his absence could be unbearably painful for New Zealand. Even more troublesome than those dark and pesky clouds.