Burden on Williamson grows as New Zealand's cracks emerge

At least the atmosphere was nicer for New Zealand. The sun shone, they dominated the early exchanges, and at the death of the game as a contest – Ross Taylor’s top-edged smear off Pat Cummins in the 32nd over of their run-chase – at least there was no send-off to match Brad Haddin’s gobful to the vanquished Grant Elliott at the MCG four years ago. As the Aussies have been learning since Cape Town, if your teeth are sharp already, there’s no need to back up your bite with extra bark.

To claim that New Zealand were killed with kindness would do a disservice to the malevolent wicket-harvesting machine Australia they have put together since their arrival for the Lord’s leg of their campaign. But in their first World Cup meeting since that World Cup final defeat, it will trouble New Zealand that the result was every bit as thumping.

They had even shuffled their cards for the first time in the tournament – bringing in Ish Sodhi as a second spin option and jettisoning the run-shy Colin Munro, who just hasn’t been able to catch a break since their opening game of the tournament – but they found no immediate means to avoid another speed-bump in their previously serene glide towards an eighth World Cup semi-final.

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“For us, it is about moving on,” said Kane Williamson, New Zealand’s captain. “Keep taking on the challenge with that great attitude, and play with that freedom that gives us the best chance of having success; but at the same time respecting the fact that anybody can beat anybody in this tournament. Despite having some success early, that doesn’t change, as we’ve seen.”

It will still require an extraordinary turn of events to deny New Zealand that semi-final berth – Pakistan’s failure to put Afghanistan in their place until the final over of their cliffhanger at Headingley means that they missed an opportunity to improve their wavering net run rate. As a consequence, it will require a landslide swing in NRR to push them out of the top four in the event of two England wins in their final games. And seeing as India and New Zealand themselves are the two teams in England’s way, their fate remains decidedly in their own hands.

“I think that [net run rate] is of one of those outcome things,” Williamson added. “If we are playing our best cricket, then the net run rate, perhaps the opportunity to win, are all factors, and that’s what we want to be focussing on.

“So when the game was slipping away, we did want to build a partnership. We did want to try and take the game to a position where we might be able to fire a few shots, which obviously would have helped in that instance and given us more of a chance to perhaps have the opportunity to get over the line. But neither of those were a possibility today.

“Once again, it is about moving on, and going to Durham and looking forward to a new surface, new opposition. Us as a side need to be really positive and play with that freedom, because when we do that, that is when we play our best cricket, and that’s the sort of mindset we need to have.”

And yet, their trajectory is not encouraging. The contemptuous ease with which New Zealand dispatched Sri Lanka in their opening fixture in Cardiff – a ten-wicket win with 203 balls left unused – feels as long ago as the dismal weather that haunted the Western leg of this ever-evolving competition. Aside from a dissimilar swatting of an unawakened Afghanistan, the rest of their fixtures have been a battle – one that they’ve rarely been less than fully alive to, which is more than can be said for several less promisingly placed opponents – but a battle nonetheless.

And most troublingly, it’s been a battle, like chess, in which the capturing of the king has proved decisive. Three of New Zealand’s victories have come when Williamson himself has not been dismissed for less than 148. Both of their defeats, as well as that two-wicket crash landing against Bangladesh at The Oval, have come after he has been dismissed for scores of 40, 41 and 40.

His first century, against South Africa, held the innings together after a collapse of three wickets for eight runs, and his second, against West Indies at Old Trafford three days later, had come after both openers had been dismissed for golden ducks – and even that would have been in vain had Carlos Brathwaite got more elevation on his heave for glory.

In those circumstances – and again, taking in mitigation the incredible battling resolve that they have brought to each of their contests (even today’s) – New Zealand may well be counting their blessings that India’s formidable bowlers were denied the chance to get stuck in at Trent Bridge. More bullish sides would claim that the rain denied them a shot at victory. More realistic sides would happily accept that a point gained, and the breathing space it gives in the final semi-final shake-down, is priceless.

But, just as he has kept calm and carried on throughout a mighty personal campaign, Williamson isn’t about to lose sight of the virtues that have carried New Zealand this far. A train up to Durham awaits in the morning, then the girding of his team’s loins for a final qualification push that may yet be academic, depending on how England fare in the interim at Edgbaston.

“I don’t think we need to focus on recalibrating,” he said. “Maybe there’s a dent in momentum. But then at the end of the day, it is coming back to the cricket that we want to play.

“Playing with those smarts, I think cricket smarts throughout this tournament has been perhaps the most important thing. Even perhaps more than something like the word ‘freedom’, which everybody wants to be able to achieve day-in, day-out. But on these surfaces that have varied a bit, which has been great, great viewing, but you do need to be smart and adapt really quickly on them to give yourselves the best chance of success.”

His side have certainly done that, in spite of recent appearances at Edgbaston and Lord’s. And you can bet that, when they come up against the team that has been striving more than any other for that “freedom”, Williamson’s methods won’t budge an inch.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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