Jos Buttler was part of the World Cup team that flopped but has since been at the heart of the revival © AFP
New Zealand 2015 was where it all began for England 2:0. New Zealand 2016 may yet be where their white-ball renaissance hits the buffers – for now. But as Eoin Morgan cast his eyes forward to England’s tantalising semi-final at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi, it was hard not to cast the mind back to the events at Wellington, 13 months ago – an abyss so abysmal, the team was left with no choice but to haul its standards up and into line with the rest of the sport.
It was excruciating at the time, on that sorry February evening in the Cake Tin, as Tim Southee drubbed Morgan’s men with figures of 7 for 33 before Brendon McCullum’s 77 from 25 balls sealed victory in the space of 12.2 overs. But, like their Raj-era forebears (or Christian “Shades of” Grey, for that matter), a damn good thrashing seems to have made England into the men they are today.
“Can I believe how far we’ve come? Absolutely not,” said Morgan. “I’ve been asked the question a couple of times after every series that we’ve played, and I can’t quite believe how far we’ve come overall in our white-ball cricket.”
It was apparent from his answer that Morgan is tired of rehashing the same old ground. England’s new forward-focussed and fearless philosophy has little time or inclination to hark back to the bad old days. Besides, to his cold and clinical mind, that era was banished from the moment it was confirmed, by Andrew Strauss last May, that he was not only to be retained as England one-day captain, but to have his remit extended to T20s as well.
Nevertheless, the tale is worth revisiting one last time, simply because of the identity of England’s semi-final opponents. Their relationship, which gathered in complexity during a fascinating three-format tussle last summer, is about to come full circle. By tomorrow evening, whether it’s a tale of continuity or reinvention, whichever side has progressed to the World T20 final will have a remarkable story to tell.
Kane Williamson, New Zealand’s impressive young captain, allowed himself a quiet chuckle when it was suggested that English cricket owed his team a debt of gratitude, but there can be no doubting the influence that New Zealand’s no-consequences vibe had on the timid also-rans of the Peter Moores era.
It was clear, from the moment that England marched out for the first of their New Zealand one-day rematches, at Edgbaston on June 9 last year, that the lessons had been heeded and the battle-plans had been drawn. In astonishing scenes, unrecognisable to long-term followers of England’s antiquated “build a platform” approach, Morgan’s new-model army charged headlong into the World Cup finalists, battering them for a national record 408 for 9.
Less than a fortnight later, they were on the rampage again – hunting down a hefty target of 350 in the space of 44 overs. The format may have been longer, but the key names in this T20 campaign remain the same: Joe Root, with hundreds in each of those games, Jos Buttler, with a 66-ball century, and Morgan himself – understated with the bat in recent weeks, but a nugget of calm-headed class whose pivotal moment may yet be to come.
“I think that series was very important,” Morgan said. “Coming into the series we talked about emulating what Australia and New Zealand did at that World Cup. From where we were to where they were, we were miles away. In order to bridge the gap we had to try and emulate the fashion in which they played and the aggressive nature in which they went about their game, and particularly with the ball.
“Throughout the World Cup their swing bowlers were fantastic and that encourages a positive mindset throughout. With the bat it can come more naturally, so they did play a key part, absolutely.”
New Zealand have been superbly cunning at the World T20, led by the bowling of Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner © AFP
On that particular point, however, New Zealand’s strategies have evolved and adapted with remarkable effect. Much of that, you sense, is down to Williamson, who has brought an impressive measure of nuance to the gung-ho legacy left to him by McCullum.
This was never better exemplified than at Nagpur in their tournament opener against India, when New Zealand’s brains trust sized up the situation with impeccable clarity of thought, banished both of those Baz-era attack dogs, Southee and Trent Boult, to the margins and, with three spinners to the fore, whirled their way to a sensational, agenda-setting victory.
Contrast that subtlety with the final act of the McCullum-led campaign at the 2015 World Cup – at the MCG against Australia where New Zealand vowed to go down swinging and emphatically did: the captain’s loose drive and third-ball duck torpedoed their game plan before it could hope to take hold. Though you won’t hear a bad word said against him in his homeland, you do wonder what might have happened with even the hint of a Plan B in their armoury.
We might be about to find out from New Zealand 2:0, whose progress throughout a tough World T20 group and an even tougher itinerary (Nagpur to Dharmasala to Mohali to Kolkata and now to Delhi) has been the epitome of the “smart but aggressive” message that Morgan has been pumping into his own troops.
“We’ve simply tried to pick horses for courses, our best team for the conditions against the opposition at any given time,” said Williamson. “That certainly won’t change.”
Asked whether he felt at a disadvantage, given that England have played only in Mumbai and Delhi, where they’ve now been based for nearly a fortnight, his response was Kiwi to the core.
“It’s great, we’ve been able to see more of India than most opposition sides. It’s one of those things. Surely it’s happened by coincidence and the guys have embraced it, embraced the flights and the variety of the hotels.”
Williamson was happy, however – in the best New Zealand tradition – to shrug off the tag of favourites that their endeavours in the competition so far have earned them. Some old habits, it seems, die rather harder than others.
“I think it’s almost impossible to give someone the favourite tag in T20 cricket,” he said. “It’s so fickle in nature that on any given day the team who plays the best wins, and anyone can beat anyone. Both pools were very strong and all teams had the desire to go all the way and believed that they could. It’s nice we’ve been playing some good cricket, and hopefully we can bring it out in a knockout game.”
England, despite their well-documented woes at major tournaments, are not quite as allergic to achievement as their past record would suggest, and Morgan, in fact, has played in two previous ICC semi-finals and won them both: against Sri Lanka in 2010 en route to lifting the World T20 crown, and most recently against South Africa at the Champions Trophy in 2013.
“In my experience in getting to the knockout stage in any tournament, you have done the hard work and it is almost now that you have earned a licence to go out and express yourself as much as you can,” he said. “To me that attitude means getting the best out of yourself. If you have guys coming out who are very relaxed about performing and performing on the big stage I think that takes a lot of weight off your shoulders.”
There are quite a few similarities, he felt, between the classes of 2010 and 2016. “The main one would be how relaxed everybody is around the group. How much they are enjoying the challenge of playing international cricket at the moment, and their hunger to win.
“It is alright having fun and enjoying what you are doing but, if you don’t have that inner drive to want to improve and win games of cricket, you are going to stand still for a long time.”
And doesn’t he know it. After the stagnation of their efforts in the Antipodes last year, England know they are a team on the move. Whether New Zealand are still one step ahead of them, however, remains to be seen.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo