Williamson’s New Zealand Deserve More Than Just a ‘Runners-Up’ Tag

It was a matter of inches which separated New Zealand and World Cup glory. But they can hold their head high because they came second by the smallest of margins in the best-ever Cricket World Cup Final at the home of cricket, Lord’s.

For all those mocking New Zealand for unfairly making it to the knockouts, Sunday was the best advert for why they deserved their place.

Lack of Respect

New Zealand beat India by 18 runs in the semi-final.

When they made it to the semi-final, there were many including some from the host broadcaster who willed India captain Virat Kohli to commit that New Zealand will be the easier opponent. But as this great game has shown us over the years, you disrespect the opponent and the game will come back to bite you.

We all saw what happened in the semi-final against India. The match ended with a massive heartbreak for a billion-plus Indians. But they still called it ‘New Zealand stun India’, which was just not done. India have beaten New Zealand in any men’s ICC event just thrice in 12 encounters since 1975 and yet it was branded as an upset!

The fact is the margin in the semi-final was 18 runs and the match was over as a contest with India at five for three.

There have been some uncharitable comments about New Zealand having no stars and that they played as a unit. This has been a tag that has stuck with New Zealand for very long. It is quite unfounded because New Zealand have quite a few stars. They punch above their weight, yes, but that does not mean that they do not have the stars.

Take the semi-final win over India for example. Both sides were well matched. Indian players may have a billion-plus followers, but that does not lessen the roles of the New Zealand cricketers.

Leader of the Pack

Kane Williamson was adjudged Player of the Tournament at the World Cup 2019.

The man leading from the front was Kane Williamson. He is the coolest captain in world cricket who – believe it or not – has led New Zealand as a stand-in first since 2012, and as a full-time leader from 2016. He is forever ready to smile and does not mind cracking jokes on himself. The way he batted and led in pressure situations, Williamson showed that he had ice running through his veins. He likes to take things in his stride. That sort of attitude helped New Zealand in the final.

Any other captain and you can take guesses here, would have wilted in the dying moments of the final, but not Williamson. He never let the situation get to him, whether in the final proper or in the Super Over.

Even with the bat, he is not the flashiest of the Fab Four currently ruling world cricket. He is much less fancied than Joe Root, Virat Kohli and Steve Smith, yet Williamson is the most consistent of them all.

His Player of the Tournament tag will testify his efforts with the bat, but his captaincy efforts will not have the trophy to show for it. He single-handedly lifted New Zealand into the final and almost carried them through.

New Zealand’s batting left a lot to be desired. Since Brendon McCullum gave up international cricket three years ago, they have had a huge hole to fill in their ODI XIs. They have tried various combinations to make up for the loss of McCullum.

Williamson and to some extent Ross Taylor have practically carried the batting line-up for close to three years in ODI cricket. Now it makes us wonder which other side depends heavily on two or three batsmen to get things going? That they managed to carry through to the World Cup final despite the loss of form of their opener Martin Guptill is a tribute to the way Williamson batted along with Taylor to an extent.

Their wicket-keeper’s slot is one position which has also undergone a number of changes since Luke Ronchi moved on after the 2017 Champions Trophy to a coaching role. Tom Latham essentially a batsman has filled in the role in the ODIs to lengthen the batting order.

All-Round Returns

Jimmy Neesham was New Zealand’s most impactful player in the World Cup due to his all-round abilities.

New Zealand cricket’s biggest asset in ODI cricket for close to four decades have been their seam bowling all-rounders. They have been blessed with them over the years. If it was Grant Elliott in 2015, that role was filled in by Jimmy Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme. Both the all-rounders did the job for their captain in the final with the bat and ball.

Especially for someone like Neesham to have practically given up the sport and then for him to return in such dramatic fashion was particularly thrilling. Grandhomme’s long handle tactics had mixed returns, but with the ball in the final he was terrific which underlined the tough nature of the Lord’s pitch. Neesham’s spells under pressure in the semi-final and final showed the value of depth in the New Zealand seam attack.

Bowling Strongest

Matt Henry has been the find of the tournament for New Zealand.

The strongest suit of New Zealand attack and this is where they scored over most other sides was their pace bowlers, who also incidentally field very well. Trent Boult was absolutely marvellous with his left-arm seamers and especially in picking up early wickets. His yorkers in the final over of the match proper in the final over showed how difficult it was to hit him. Boult’s partner Matt Henry was written off mid-way through the tournament, but he picked up crucial wickets in the semi-final and final.

Lockie Ferguson has been the surprise package for New Zealand.

The biggest surprise for all was the form of Lockie Ferguson. He was rapid, ran through middle-orders and yorked batsmen at will. Ferguson was a punt that New Zealand had taken after his quick bowling mate Adam Milne had broken down several times in his short career. That Ferguson kept an experienced campaigner like Tim Southee showed the depth in the New Zealand attack.

They had two spinners in their ranks, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi, both of whom were not fully utilised throughout the tournament. Yet, Santner with his left-arm spin bored India’s dashers Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya into committing mistakes.

Future Gains

New Zealand played in back-to-back World Cup finals.

So there were enough and more stars in New Zealand’s ranks who do not get diminished just because they fell short. They may have had three losses in the league stage, but then so did England. In a World Cup where everyone plays everyone you are bound to have bad days. New Zealand won the good days and just lost in one bad moment.

In coming years if they find some more batsmen to support Williamson and Taylor, they will be a very tough side to beat in ODI cricket. Their bowlers are all young and in the same age group. They never have any problems in picking all-rounders. And yes they cannot be matched in the field for their commitment. Any other side would have wilted, but not the BlackCaps. Above all, New Zealand have a captain in Williamson who is going to remain unchallenged as a leader for years to come.

So next time you choose to brand New Zealand as an underdog, you do so at your own peril, because they are certainly top dogs.

(Chandresh Narayanan is a former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and the Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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