There is a burning intensity to the New Zealand Cricket team at the moment. And it is the incandescent Brendon McCullum who is fanning the flames, having poured the fuel and lit the fire just in time for the ICC Cricket World Cup. A team that usually flies well under the radar, has grown stronger and stronger, to the point that the tag of favourite rests lightly on its shoulders going into the fourth quarter-final of the tournament, against West Indies, at the Wellington Regional Stadium on Saturday (March 21).
New Zealand walk into its first knockout game of the tournament wearing a settled look, the only doubt being whether Adam Milne, the fast bowler, would recover from a shoulder injury soon enough to reclaim his place, currently being filled by Mitchell McClenaghan.
West Indies was in a less comfortable position, and the sight of Chris Gayle rocking up for training the day before the game, and hitting the ball hard enough to take out a picket fence at the Basin Reserve would have brought some comfort. Jason Holder, the young West Indies captain, would not speculate on how big a chance there was of Gayle missing out, but confirmed that a final decision could only be made on match morning.
“Well, obviously Chris’s stats speak for themselves. He’s one of the most feared batsmen in world cricket. So to have Chris on the squad is a plus for anybody. So to have him there, just his presence, is something. We just hope that he can perform the way he’s been known to perform over the years and we get the best of him,” said Holder.
He stressed that West Indies was not about one man alone. “Well, we won the last game without him, so I can’t say we can’t win without him, you know? Obviously he’s been a very good player for us over the years. But it’s shown that we’ve got people to fit the bill. We’ve got Johnson Charles who came in the last game and he got a half-century and looked the part. So we’ve got people to fill the boots in a sense. But obviously having Chris Gayle is a plus for us.”
Holder also believed that the way to go for West Indies was to “fight fire with fire,” when it came to containing the damage McCullum might do, and believed that his team, having reached the knockouts, had it in them to deliver the punch needed to floor New Zealand. “If you’ve been following what’s been said, people pretty much didn’t expect us to get to the quarterfinal stage and now we’re here,” said Holder. “So, we’re just going out all guns blazing tomorrow and just giving our all. New Zealand can be beaten. We beat them in the past in our last series we played them here, and I know that we can beat them tomorrow.”
Holder’s summary of West Indies’s chances isn’t inaccurate in that his team will have to be at its very best to beat New Zealand. For the home team, however, the situation is a touch different. It will believe that it has the ammunition, the skill and the wherewithal to make it to the final four even if it does not play the perfect game.
On the day before the game, New Zealand’s training session was a treat to watch. The intensity with which the players approached what could otherwise have been light fielding drills showed just how fired up the group is. In the past, New Zealand teams have punched above its weight at global events, hoping for the best, but not quite believing that it could go all the way. For once, the situation is different. All McCullum’s men need to do is keep up the good work. From there on, the real question is whether West Indies can resist it.
To be sure, New Zealand has looked vulnerable when McCullum has been dismissed early, and there is an element of risk to its all-out aggressive approach with the ball. When there has been swing – and it’s hard to recall a New Zealand game where there has been absolutely nothing for the quick bowlers – McCullum attacks from start to finish. What this means is that a team who can weather the initial storm could capitalise later on, at least in theory, but no opponent has really managed to put this into practice yet.