Australia will likely be hoping that New Zealand wins the Cricket World Cup. (Reuters: Lee Smith)
The Cricket World Cup has reached its climax with the hosts England set to face off against New Zealand in the final at Lord’s.
Despite England’s erratic form throughout the tournament, the hosts will go into the final big favourites to claim a maiden World Cup title over the equally shaky Kiwis.
Everyone loves an underdog, and in the spirit of Australia’s penchant for unashamedly claiming any sporting success from across the ditch as its own, the Black Caps are clearly firming as Australia’s choice for Sunday’s Lord’s showdown.
But what do our Antipodean neighbours have to do to upset the odds once more and claim one-day cricket’s biggest prize?
An unlikely final?
Australia was stunned by England, having won its last two ODI’s against the old enemy. (Reuters: Andrew Boyers)
This is not the decider that many would have expected heading into the semi-finals.
India had been in ominous form as it topped the table off the back of some devastating all-round performances, whereas New Zealand stumbled its way into the final four — losing its last three group stage matches and being pushed desperately close against South Africa and the West Indies.
As for Australia, it had never been beaten in a semi-final and was expected to breeze past its perennial World Cup bunnies England right up until shortly after it won the toss and elected to bat first.
However, history will show us that it was the two ‘underdogs’ that prevailed after two wildly-contrasting contests.
New Zealand was forced to grind out a dramatic win across two, rain-soaked days in Manchester, battling a shaky Indian XI on the field and a wildly parochial 24,000 supporters that came within a magical run out of roaring their heroes home.
England also produced a magical run out of its own, with Jos Buttler firing a dart through Steve Smith’s scampering legs to run out the former captain in extraordinary fashion.
In truth though, that was merely one highlight in an emphatic performance with the ball by England that Australia never recovered from on its way to an eight-wicket defeat.
Who is the key for New Zealand?
It would be wrong to suggest that New Zealand’s batting begins and ends with the form of Williamson and his calm leadership. But not far wrong.
Had it not been for a freakish run-out that saw a straight drive from Ross Taylor brush Mark Wood’s fingertip in the group-stage match against England, the hosts may not have even reached the semi-finals at all.
Williamson was building a nice partnership with Taylor after Martin Guptill (8) and Henry Nichols (0) departed quickly — but the unfortunate dismissal when the promising partnership had crept to 47 sparked a decline that saw the Kiwi’s limp to 186 all out in 45 overs.
Had he hung around, perhaps New Zealand could have chased down England’s imposing total of 305.
Williamson has had to step up after openers Nichols and Guptill have failed to fire thus far — and has responded by notching the highest average of anyone at this World Cup with 91.33, scoring 548 anchoring runs across eight innings.
Of the eight matches that Williamson has batted in at this World Cup, the 28-year-old has topped the scoring for the Kiwis four times and been second-highest scorer twice.
New Zealand has only lost one of those matches, against Australia when Williamson played a lone hand in scoring 40 of New Zealand’s paltry 157 runs.
The three times in the group stages that Williamson top-scored, he was not dismissed, including scoring two centuries in those nail biting encounters with South Africa and West Indies.
Despite those stats, it is not just on Williamson’s broad shoulders that the burden of carrying his nation lies.
Taylor has stepped up to lead New Zealand’s scoring twice so far this tournament — against Bangladesh and India — both games New Zealand won.
As the second-highest run-scorer in the comp for New Zealand, Taylor can provide a key foil to Williamson should both openers depart cheaply once again.
Battling England’s bowlers
Mark Wood took 3-34 against New Zealand in England’s 119-run victory earlier in the World Cup. (Reuters: Jason Cairnduff)
Departing cheaply is something that is a real possibility for New Zealand’s batsmen in the face of England’s supremely talented and confident bowling attack.
Australia witnessed first hand how venomous England’s pace quartet can be — just ask Alex Carey.
Last time the two sides met, at the Riverside Ground at Chester-le-Street nine days ago, no one bowler did the damage.
Chris Woakes, Jofra Archer, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid and Ben Stokes all chipped in with a wicket, whilst Mark Wood grabbed three plus the run out of Williamson, showing this attack can hurt you across the board.
New Zealand’s own bowlers can still cause plenty of problems.
Leading wicket-taker Lachie Ferguson has taken just one fewer wicket than England’s Archer — at an average of 19.94.
Trent Boult (17 wickets at an average of 24.23), Matt Henry (13 at 27.07) and James Neesham (12 at 20.75) round out New Zealand’s members of the top 20 in the competition.
Boult and Henry’s stunning opening spells got to India in the semi-final — and they’ll have to be at their best early to negate the threat of Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow — whose 124-run opening stand took the game beyond Australia’s reach.
England’s success built on lessons from the best
England will provide a daunting opponent to the Kiwi’s on Sunday at Lord’s.
Brushing off fears of an early exit with a spectacular return to form in the latter part of the group stages, England is peaking at the right time, using tricks of the trade that they learned from first hand at the last World Cup at the hands of their opponents on Sunday.
New Zealand reached the World Cup final in 2015 with a combination of a balanced bowling attack and a devastating batting line-up that England witnessed at close quarters in Wellington.
England was blown away by a fierce spell of fast bowling from Tim Southee and saw its chances of setting an acceptable total blown by some miserly bowling from veteran spinner Dan Vettori, who allowed just 19 runs at 2.71 in his seven overs as England were bowled out for 123 in the 34th over.
When England had a chance to bowl, it only got worse as carnage flowed from the bat of Brendon McCullum.
McCullum’s 77 in 25 balls saw the Kiwi’s wrap it up inside 13 overs. The entire game lasted less than 46 overs.
In other words, England got schooled in the art of one-day cricket.
Fast forward four years and England is the finest exponent of the 50-over game in the world — and have been for the past two years.
England clearly took the punishment inflicted upon them by McCullum to heart — at this World Cup, every player that has batted more than six innings has a strike rate of over 91. The only players not to buy into that swing-at-all-costs mentality were James Vince and Archer.
When that approach comes off, the results can be spectacular.
England is unbeaten in a home ODI series since that World Cup four years ago and, before the successive defeats against Pakistan and Australia, had not lost back-to-back internationals in more than two years.
Last week’s semi-finals showed that not backing the underdogs is fool-hardy at best.
However, the only thing that’s certain is that we’ll have a new world champion on Sunday.