New Zealand are poised to make a daunting transition. They will be without their fearless leader and most dynamic batsman who has bid adieu to international cricket. The 2016 ICC World T20 signals the dawn of a new era for New Zealand cricket after the retirement of beloved captain Brendon McCullum.
The Black Caps’ talisman quit last month after the Test series against Australia and New Zealand now must regroup quickly if they hope to mount a serious challenge in the tournament. They would have doubtless loved McCullum to play on a little longer. It is undeniable that New Zealand will miss his destructive batting and inspirational leadership; the boys fed off McCullum’s dynamism and it propelled them to heights previously unimaginable.
With McCullum back in the hut, the Kiwis are very much outsiders for the title. Most cynics don’t believe New Zealand can escape from a difficult group alongside Australia, Pakistan, India and the winners of the qualifying pool played among Bangladesh, Ireland, Netherlands and Oman.
But as has been repeatedly evident over the years, it is never wise to underestimate New Zealand who have a knack of springing surprises. Without McCullum, they defeated Pakistan 2-1 in a T20 series at home in January with a pair of convincing victories that would have given them a healthy dose of confidence.
But playing in the sub-continent represents an entirely different challenge and, accordingly, New Zealand selected in their 15-man World Cup squad a three-pronged spin arsenal consisting of off-spinner Nathan McCullum, leg-spinner Ish Sodhi and left-arm orthodox all-rounder Mitchell Santner.
It is a relatively inexperienced spin attack and highlights the gaping hole left by Daniel Vettori, who has been greatly missed across all formats. It will be interesting to see how the Black Caps proceed and whether they will play more than one spinner but you feel opposition batsmen will relentlessly target them.
New Zealand will hope for their high-octane pace battery to fire after a lacklustre performance in the recent Test series against Australia. Trent Boult and Tim Southee struggled with the red cherry but have generally been able to swing the white ball more prodigiously. Both are masterly proponents of swing bowling and at their best can scythe through a batting line.
But Boult and Southee struggled noticeably to make inroads against Australia over two Test series recently, and if they can’t produce early breakthroughs then New Zealand’s bowling could be exposed as the rest of the attack has a feel of fragility about it. The selectors surprisingly left out highly impressive paceman Matt Henry and opted for left-armer Mitchell McClenaghan and explosive youngster Adam Milne.
Milne, 23, is seen as a budding superstar and has been hailed as New Zealand’s quickest bowler since Shane Bond roared onto the scene in the early 2000s. Capable of bowling at speeds nudging 150 kmph, Milne’s fledgling career has been stymied by injuries but he once again showed his spectacular promise by taking six wickets against Pakistan in two T20 matches in January. The World T20 could very well be the making of Milne.
New Zealand’s batting, though, still looks capable of mustering significant scores. And just like in the longer formats, their fortunes will largely rest with captain Kane Williamson.
Very much a classical batsman boasting a flawless technique, Williamson may not appear explosive or audacious but his innate class ensures he can score at a quick clip. He scored a pair of exquisite 70s against Pakistan, which underlined his significant role as New Zealand’s batting fulcrum.
Complementing Williamson is a well-rounded New Zealand batting line-up with Martin Guptill, Corey Anderson and wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi all capable of being match-winners on their day. Guptill will be relied upon to get New Zealand off to a fast start while the burly Anderson is best equipped at finishing an innings.
New Zealand will be sweating over the fitness of experienced batsman Ross Taylor, who missed the ODI and Test series against Australia due to a side strain. Taylor returned to cricket in late February and believes he will be at full fitness for the World T20. But scepticism lingers over whether he will be able to return to his best, and if not, New Zealand’s batting will look decidedly unstable.
It will be a baptism of fire for Williamson who did impress as captain against Pakistan in ODI and T20 series in January. He should be able to find solace in New Zealand’s tenacious history, even though they have only made the final four of the World T20 once previously.
Williamson will be hoping his team can harness the spirit and success New Zealand have so memorably displayed at the ODI World Cup. For so many of those tournaments, Black Caps were fancied as “dark horses”, and they generally lived up to that billing. Similarly, this team could legitimately warrant that moniker once again.
The Kiwis have always played hard and have enough talent to trouble the very best teams. Amid an arduous group, New Zealand will have to showcase their famed pluck repeatedly to progress deep into the tournament. It looks an uphill battle but write New Zealand off at your peril.