The last time the Champions Trophy was on the horizon, New Zealand was convalescing from a bout of rancour and resentment. Ross Taylor was unceremoniously moved on from his role as captain in December 2012 as coach Mike Hesson sought to lead the team in a new direction. The fall-out was disastrous.
It was a classic case of miscommunication and Hesson’s plan for split captaincy fell through. Taylor justifiably felt he did not have his coach’s backing. The batsman walked away from the side to rest and reflect. But the healing could not wait, such was the predicament in which the Black Caps had landed. Under the leadership of Brendon McCullum, the team began to nourish a new team culture which would, ironically, be built on open communication and clearly-defined roles for everyone.
The result was a resounding success, albeit not immediately. In a campaign which revealed its fragile batting resources, New Zealand failed to make it past the group stages at the 2013 Champions Trophy. A first-time run to the World Cup final was still 18 months away. The seeds for the team’s emergence as a world-beater were being sown but the results were yet to reflect that.
As the latest edition of the Champions Trophy knocks on our door, New Zealand again finds itself in the throes of a transition. The departure of Brendon McCullum necessitated another change in leadership last year. Thankfully for New Zealand, it was a smooth affair this time around. Kane Williamson assumed the captaincy in all formats and his elevation was understandably undisputed. He is not just the team’s best batsman; Williamson is also a product of this team culture.
The 26-year-old’s understated demeanour sits well with the public image of the Black Caps. Hesson has previously spoken about his desire to coach a team which has the approval of cricket-loving fans. “It wasn't so much just the performance, it was also the style of play and the way we went about our business — it was able to capture the public. A lot of young players are choosing to play cricket for the first time and that's exciting,” he said, in the aftermath of the 2015 World Cup.
Indeed, one of Hesson’s major contributions to this side has been to identify and mould young players within the setup. Williamson has always looked mature beyond his years but his transformation into a leader is a consequence of the culture that is ingrained within the group.
No wonder then that Hesson has been quite impressed with how well Williamson has taken on the role. "The thing the team likes most is the fact that he’s so selfless. He doesn't do it for effect, he does it because that's what he cares about. That's his priority — the team. And what drives him is to win games."
Indeed, the results will gain utmost importance now; no matter the significance afforded to the process and enjoying one’s time on the field. New Zealand’s only ICC trophy arrived when it won the Champions Trophy’s knockout avatar back in 2000. The Black Caps reached the final again in 2009 but Australia denied them a second piece of silverware on that occasion.
The gains made under Williamson need to be backed up by tangible success this June. While the Black Caps have retained the competitive edge which marked them out in the McCullum years, it does seem like the side still has some way to go before it can be seen as a genuine contender for the title.
In an interview with ESPN Cricinfo, Williamson spoke about the year in transition. “I do look at it as a year of growth. Obviously losing the likes of McCullum — he did a fantastic job — along with a number of other senior players, the team is going to take a slightly different shape. So, it's been great to be a part of that (and) see the team grow over a period of time.”
But the improvements have been staccato-like. In the same interview, Williamson admitted that the tours to India and South Africa last year had proven to be tough—and barely successful—examinations after a couple of impressive seasons for New Zealand. “I suppose we had a really good rhythm about our cricket (before the tours).” However, after a summer of ups and downs, there’s a discordant harmony and coherence may not be around the corner. The recent success in the tri-series which involved Bangladesh and Ireland is hardly a reliable indicator as New Zealand did not have its full Champions Trophy squad available.
Of course, the Kiwis’ aversion to grandstanding may mislead us. It does need to be recalled that New Zealand was not expected to set the World Cup on fire at home in 2015. But the group came together at the right time to excel.
However, a tough fixture list in the Champions Trophy dampens the expectations. England and Australia share the space with New Zealand in Group A; Bangladesh being the other resident. The results in the on-going tri-series in Ireland and the favourable conditions for New Zealand should give them a clear edge over the Tigers but victory in that match may not matter at all.
New Zealand meet the 2015 World Cup winners Australia and host England before they face-off against Bangladesh. Although Williamson’s side wrested the Chappell-Hadlee trophy back from the Aussies earlier this year, Steve Smith’s men will be at full-strength for the upcoming tournament.
England, of course, is among the tournament’s favourites as the side has rejuvenated itself after the 2015 World Cup debacle, when it failed to progress past the group stage. Indeed, it might be worth recalling that the transformation of this English side had its first breakthrough when the Kiwis visited two summers ago. England won the ODIs 3-2 thanks to a stunning batting display by its young brigade, who form the core of the side now. Nine of the 15 named in the New Zealand squad for this Champions Trophy had featured in that series. The number could have been eleven if Corey Anderson and Adam Milne had not pulled out due to injuries.
Anderson and Milne, fortunately for New Zealand, are fit for the impending challenge. So is Mitchell McClenaghan, who finished with 11 wickets in the tournament’s previous edition four years ago. Both McClenaghan and Milne have not represented the Black Caps since the 2016 World T20 in India thanks to their fitness problems.
Anderson, meanwhile, had been left out of the last three ODI series as he could only play as a specialist batsman. Now that the all-rounder is back to his bowling duties, it is no surprise that he was recalled for the Champions Trophy. Along with Jimmy Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme, Anderson is among a trio of seam-bowling all-rounders who will come handy in English conditions.
In the spin bowling department, New Zealand have gone with the more experienced choice of Jeetan Patel over Ish Sodhi. Of course, Patel will have to battle it out for a spot in the final eleven with Mitchell Santner, whose abilities as a batsman are worth anyone’s time. However, the 37-year-old offie earned a surprise recall at the turn of this year because Hesson envisages another important role for him.
“He (Patel) is helping us develop a few other spinners at the same time. He is the most consistent spinner we've got and a really nice filler for us now. He gets the best out of the other bowlers and has sped up their learning.”
Indeed, in the process-oriented world of Hesson’s New Zealand, Patel has been enlisted to offer rewards beyond the Champions Trophy campaign. It also helps that another senior figure — Ross Taylor — is fit again after an injury-laden summer kept him in and out of the side.
When one assesses the New Zealand team for this year’s Champions Trophy, it can be safely said that a better squad could not have been chosen. "We believe it's an exciting squad; an experienced squad, and one that has the batting power and the bowling variations to prevail in a potentially high-scoring tournament. Having four all-rounders certainly helps with balance, and the return of McClenaghan and Milne will offer options with the new ball, through the middle of the innings, and in the death overs,” said Hesson, after the team was announced.
All bases are covered but it remains to be seen whether a more coherent picture of New Zealand will emerge in England. Williamson has been at pains to point out that the last 12 months have been a period of growth under his captaincy. It is time for the results to back his words.
Updated Date: May 29, 2017 14:03 PM