WC countdown: NZ: Punching above their weight

VITAL COG: Kane Williamson's batting and astute captaincy will be key to New Zealand's fortunes in the World Cup. AFP

If there’s one country in world cricket that has constantly punched well above their weight, it's New Zealand. With a population of just under five million and where cricket is way behind rugby in popularity charts, the Black Caps have admirably managed to fight toe-to-toe with the sports’ heavyweights.

Unlike their illustrious neighbours Australia — the most successful nation in World Cup history with five title triumphs — who have been always blessed with a galaxy of talented players, New Zealand generally have had just a couple of stars for most of their campaigns but their ability to play together as a team has seen them make six semifinal appearances and one final as well.

Probably, the lack of star power is what has stopped them from capturing the Holy Grail which was just one win away four years ago. Riding high on some unprecedented home support and the emotion of iconic player Martin Crowe being diagnosed with cancer around the same time, the Black Caps won all their six group games before steamrolling West Indies in the quarterfinals and South Africa in the semifinals to reach their maiden final.

Their rivals Australia, meanwhile, had lost a group stage affair to them and even looked shaky in their quarterfinal over Pakistan. But in the big final at the biggest cricket ground in the world - MCG -, the Aussies showed their overall superiority as New Zealand caved in stunningly to suffer their only loss of the tournament at the most inopportune time.

This time too the Kiwis will attempt a shot at coronation with the squad boasting of just a couple star batsmen but filled with talent and heart. Kane Williamson has taken over the reins superbly, installing calmness yet elevating team spirit. He has led from the front astutely with some elegant knocks and is rated as one of the premier batsmen among the current generation.

Veteran Ross Taylor is back to his best. After a period of lull in 2016 where his career appeared at crossroads, the 35-year-old has bounced back strongly, averaging an astonishing 91.28 in 2018 and 74.12 in the season so far.

Players like Martin Guptill, Colin Munro, Henry Nicholls, Tom Latham and Colin de Grandhomme form an able support cast and if they get going, New Zealand can really go deep in the tournament. What they lack is power hitting in the middle-order with de Grandhomme, Latham and Jimmy Neesham yet to stoke fear in opposition bowlers.

New Zealand have a good bowling attack but it all depends on the conditions. Trent Boult and Tim Southee are two of the best swing bowlers in the world but predictions are it’s going to be a hot summer in the UK and with the recent England-Pakistan series doling out flatbeds, the duo will have to conjure all their experience. Lockie Ferguson has constantly worked up the speed guns and is a potent third pacer. Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi are the two spinners with the former is proving to be an intelligent tweaker.

Not many pundits have tipped New Zealand to make the semifinal cut this time too but the Kiwis have often soared above expectations. There’s no reason why they can’t this time.

The squad: Kane Williamson (capt), Colin Munro, Henry Nicholls, Ross Taylor, Martin Guptill, Tom Blundell, Tom Latham, Colin de Grandhomme, Jimmy Neesham, Mitchell Santner, Trent Boult, Lockie Ferguson, Matt Henry, Ish Sodhi, Tim Southee.

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