“If the wind will not serve, take to the oars” is a Latin proverb. When they discovered that the Manchester wicket in the ICC Cricket World Cup semifinal on 9 July 2019, wasn’t quite the batting track they had expected it to be, the New Zealanders ‘took to the oars’. Plans A, B and C were quickly scrapped, and a new strategy put in place that won for them an appearance in the final. The fancied Indians were, perhaps, caught napping.
When Kane Williamson won the toss that overcast morning in Manchester and decided that the Kiwis would bat first, he would have imagined setting a target of around 350 for the Indians. He knew that Virat Kohli’s boys were excellent chasers and anything less than that would be an insult to India’s batting strength. The track, in his opinion, had been ‘beautifully’ rolled out and even the India skipper said that he would have loved to bat on it first. Assessing the 22-yard patch, most experts had called it a ‘belter’.
Martin Guptill and Henry Nicholls, the Kiwi openers, soon discovered that the pitch was an impostor. Deliveries from Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah were seaming, climbing from a length and the odd ball was even keeping low. It was two-paced. One ball from Bumrah that whizzed past Nicholls’ bat after seaming away and had MS Dhoni collecting it in front of first slip, after it moved late in its flight, told the whole story of a pitch that was playing ‘naughty’.
By the time Guptill had been snapped up by Kohli, standing close in the slips cordon, off Bumrah, the New Zealand think-tank had an idea of how the wicket was behaving and had already reworked their target score. Skipper Williamson, walking in with the scoreboard showing 1 for 1, passed on the message of caution to Nicholls and the two of them took the total to 69 before the latter fell to a Jadeja delivery, in the 18th over. Williamson and Ross Taylor, the team’s best batsmen, added a valuable 65 runs for the third wicket. The Kiwis had crawled to 134 for 3 in the 34th over when Williamson was out. Jimmy Neesham, Colin de Grandhomme, Tom Latham and Mitchell Santner then played around Taylor (74) to post a fighting total of 239 for 8 in 50 overs.
Williamson said later that had they gone for a higher target, they would have lost wickets and perhaps ended up 20 or 30 runs short. The Kiwi batsmen cleverly targeted Hardik Pandya (1-55) and Yuzvendra Chahal (1-63), while playing Kumar, Bumrah and Jadeja with a lot caution. They did not mind the huge number of dot balls that were piling up on their score-sheet.
With 23 deliveries remaining in the New Zealand innings, rain came pouring down in sheets in Manchester and play was called off for the day. Posting a decent score on the board and having seen the wicket from close up, the Kiwis then sat down to plot the early demise of India’s classy batsmen like Rohit Sharma and Kohli, who — they knew — once set, could win the match on their own.
During the run up to the World Cup, I had often mentioned in my columns that Kohli should be playing at number 4 in the batting order. The rationale for this move was that the Indian batting line up was top-heavy and that if perchance Rohit and Kohli got out early, the Indian batting would be in disarray. That’s exactly what happened in the semifinal match against New Zealand and from thereon, it was the Indians fighting with their backs to the wall.
Williamson’s plan, when India batted on the reserve day, was to go all out against the openers — and Kohli — and to cramp them for space. He knew both Rohit and Rahul were uncomfortable with a slip cordon in place and others crowding around in the 30-yard circle. Trent Boult and Matt Henry executed the Kiwi plan to perfection. The latter had the two openers caught behind by Latham and Boult set up Kohli with a couple of deliveries that left him and then trapped him in front of the stumps with a late inswinger. India was 5 for 3 wickets and staring down the barrel as early as the third over.
New Zealand had applied the squeeze successfully. The talented Rishabh Pant walked in at number 4 and Dinesh Karthik at number 5. In the 10th over, Neesham picked up a brilliant catch at wide gully to send back Karthik off Henry. When Pandya came in to bat at number 6, instead of the experienced war-horse Dhoni, it was apparent that the Indian think-tank had run out of ideas. Santner, who had bowled like a miser, then sent back both Pant and Pandya, reducing India to 92-6.
Then came a bit of a recovery; Dhoni tread cautiously while Jadeja chanced his arm, and the duo added 116 for the seventh wicket. When the latter completed his 50, he swung the bat around like a sword, as he is wont to, and then pointed towards the commentator’s box. That was his reply perhaps to Sanjay Manjrekar, who had called him a bits-and-pieces player. That action on his part raised the question of whether or not Jadeja was focused enough on the task at hand. With 32 runs required for an improbable win, Jadeja fell to Boult and shortly afterwards, Dhoni was brilliantly run out by Guptill. That, bar the formalities, was the end of India’s much touted campaign in the ICC Cricket World Cup of 2019.
India had topped the 10-nation group, after the round-robin league matches in England and Wales were over. New Zealand had finished fourth, just edging out Pakistan on a better net run rate. That was perhaps where India lost the battle. The Kiwis accepted the fact that they were underdogs and worked out a strategy from that point of view, keeping India’s strengths in mind. The Indians didn’t think much of the New Zealanders and were perhaps a wee bit over-confident.
Williamson thought on his feet, Kohli didn’t. That’s why the Kiwis will play England in the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 on Sunday, 14 July. If the New Zealanders play the underdog card again, and use their brains, as they did against India, I won’t be surprised if they end up world champs.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and administrator, he doesn’t believe in calling a spade a shovel.