India vs New Zealand: The Forever Underdogs May Not Be the Team Everyone Wants to Play

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India vs New Zealand: The Forever Underdogs May Not Be the Team Everyone Wants to Play

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

It is the team everyone wants to play, which may not have been the case about four weeks ago when unexpected rain washed out the clash between India and New Zealand in Nottingham. The lead up to that contest was tenser, informed by the then fresh-in-memory comprehensive defeat of the Men in Blue to the Kiwis in their warm-up fixture. The New Zealand seamers had wreaked havoc, exposing a chink in the armour that was to preoccupy India.

Much has changed since then. England has brightened up and gotten warmer. We have more batting friendly tracks now, winning the toss and batting first is a tactic that sets up victories and the Kiwis are, well, not that formidable anymore. Three straight defeats have ripped the veneer of progress that rested on the side, revealing deep cracks within.

The loss of form of so many players at the same time must worry skipper Kane Williamson, and the bowling is not as well rounded as it was four years ago. Couple that with the Black Caps’ history. If we set aside the 2015 World Cup, the team carries a reputation for bottling semifinals. Tuesday will be the team’s eighth semi out of twelve World Cups, an exceptional record. But it has lost six of those matches.

One could argue that the historical block was dissolved by the monumental chase that the Kiwis successfully undertook in the 2015 semifinal against South Africa but one requires more convincing. The shadow of history has a longer lifespan, it cannot be outwitted in one evening. And it would not surprise anyone if the past catches up with this New Zealand team, as it does not seem like a side that can mock history. Yet.

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The New Zealand seamers had wreaked havoc, exposing a chink in the armour that was to preoccupy India.

Action Foto Sport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Still, stranger things have happened. India knows it only well when it comes to New Zealand. The only time the two sides met in a knockout match of an ICC tournament, the Kiwis pulled off an unlikely win in the 2000 Knockout final at Nairobi. It was a frustrating game for India as a stunning century by Chris Cairns overturned a contest that Sourav Ganguly’s side controlled at multiple points.

If New Zealand is to win this time around, though, it will probably not happen while chasing. All the games at Old Trafford in Manchester have been won by the team batting first, a trend almost replicated at grounds across England over the past two and a half weeks. That may offer Kiwis comfort, even though it leaves the side hoping for a delicious offering from fate. However, if the forever underdog were to win the toss and bat first on Tuesday, the odds will certainly tilt in its favour.

The Kiwis can certainly make the most of the conditions. Even in the iffy form it finds itself, New Zealand has had rays of sunshine to savour. Captain Williamson has one of the best batting averages in this World Cup, with two centuries and a fifty. You could say that the Kiwis are heavily reliant on their skipper – Williamson has scored nearly a third of their runs in the tournament – and yet it must be heart-warming for the players to see that their skipper has been unfazed by the task of rescuing them when trouble comes calling.

So, is it as easy for India to just dismiss Williamson early and that will be the match? Perhaps not. In Trent Boult and the fit-again Lockie Ferguson, the Kiwis have two pacers who have shared 32 wickets in this World Cup; both find a place among the top ten wicket-takers. Add Jimmy Neesham, whose eleven wickets have arrived at a fetching average of 18, and you have multiple threats to confront.

If the forever underdog were to win the toss and bat first on Tuesday, the odds will certainly tilt in its favour.

As Australia found out in Manchester on Saturday, it takes very little for fate to turn toward the miserable. Losing the toss on a flat pitch can hurt even the strongest of bowling attacks. It is not inconceivable to imagine New Zealand winning the toss in the semi and putting India under pressure with a formidable total. Then, maybe, the Kiwis may not be the team everyone wants to play.

The first half of the tournament had New Zealand running over weak opposition before having its bluff called by sides that were in better form and shape. Perhaps, now that the cookie has crumbled, Kiwis will enjoy life away from the spotlight. They may find that nothing to lose is not necessarily a bad place to be.

And yet, India must feel pretty confident. The defeat against England notwithstanding, the team has found its way to a win on different tracks and in challenging circumstances. The middle order is still settling on a defined shape but the inclusion of Rishabh Pant has brought the batting heft that was missing before. India finds itself in a strong place and it is hard to believe that the Virat Kohli-led side could miss out on a place in Sunday’s final. But, well, stranger things have happened.

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