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India and New Zealand: In Third Gear


ICC Cricket ODI World Cup 2015As the league stage of the 2015 ODI World Cup edged towards the finish-line, a lot of discussion was warranted on the final’s ideal scenario. Social media is the hotbed of such activity, Twitter the main promoter. There are a few different match-ups that emerged – New Zealand and Australia, Australia and South Africa, the hope of another India-Pakistan clash for those seeking 7-0 (or 6-1), the MCG faithful hoping for a sell-out India-Australia affair (not possible anymore). Or an India-New Zealand clash, that won’t be too bad either.

It is that last scenario which engaged most people, for these two teams have been the stand-out performers in their respective groups. Six wins each, retaining almost the same playing eleven through the league stage, bowling out oppositions at will, destroying their attacks with some tremendous batting displays. The Men in Blue and the Black Caps are favourites for the title at this moment in time.

This last weekend of the league stage, there was one other common denominator between the two sides. Playing Zimbabwe and Bangladesh respectively, they didn’t get out of third gear, and still went on to win those two games. There was some bother for them in both those matches, but they made it in the end, shrugging off the rustiness.

In Hamilton, New Zealand took on Bangladesh first, on Friday. Seddon Park was packed once again, after being filled up by a predominantly Indian fan-base three days prior, though it can be said there was an equal number of both sets of fans. That has been the remarkable thing about this World Cup. The Asian teams have enjoyed immense support on their match days, almost as if the tournament is being partly staged in the sub-continent. This factor could play a role in the all-important knock-out stage coming up, where buoyancy from the crowd could make or break a team’s morale.

It was seen in the manner Bangladesh got off to a poor start but recovered thereafter. Any World Cup campaign needs a batting star, especially if it has to be considered a success. The Tigers have already achieved their one goal for this tournament, reaching the quarter-finals, and Mahmudullah will return home to enjoy cult-status. In his last seven innings, he has scored two hundreds and three fifties, both of those centuries accorded World Cup status.

In seeing out England from a precarious position of 8/2, or in defying a Kiwi bowling line-up that has flayed Sri Lanka, the English and Australia, this batsman left an indelible mark on his country’s cricketing annals. In fact, his innings helped Bangladesh score 288/7, the highest total against the Kiwis in this tournament so far. But this is not about them, it is about how the co-hosts never got out of third gear and still got across the finish line.

For a moment though, struggling at 33/2, there was a dash of doubt over whether New Zealand could come out of their shell. It was a keen test of their credentials, for it is easy to build momentum, get on a winning spree and qualify. They have done all of it before.

They have never, however, proven that they could blow lightly on a particular day and still get across, the story of their previous tournaments. This is why the knocks of Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor will be remembered as significant markers in their World Cup campaign. Particularly, because their middle order has been struggling to come good, yet they did on this day and the late charge saw them home. They had a hiccup and survived, getting it out of the way before the knock-outs begin.

India too passed that middle-order test, and thankfully, in the league-stage itself. There is no charm in skating through the pool matches with your top-order bludgeoning the opposition, and then reaching the quarter-finals – against a slippery team – only to struggle at 30 for 3, hoping that your untested middle-order comes good.

Suresh Raina had one proper knock against Pakistan and then waited five matches to come good again. MS Dhoni had one fifty against the West Indies, his first 50-plus score since October 2014, and just as questions were being asked about his form, he came back to form against Zimbabwe too. Their only worry is the form of Ravindra Jadeja – both with bat and ball – but that’s a topic for another day.

Apart from their batting exploits, this last league match followed a similar script to that of the New Zealand-Bangladesh game in bowling: the tournament’s best bowling attack making a good start, tailing off in the middle, and then coming back strong. And yet the opposition got a tall score, thanks to a stellar hundred, this time from Brendon Taylor.

The defending champions are an easy-going lot. They don’t bother more than they ought to, and in this game, it was apparent that they never got into attack mode. They coasted in that proverbial third-gear, only shifting stance when the possibility of a defeat emerged. Come the knock-out stages, and with three matches standing in between them and a possible second successive World Cup triumph, they will not be cruising around anymore.

An India-New Zealand final, you said? It will depend on which team brings out its top-gears, and when.

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