Gideon Haigh in The Australian, 24 March 2015 where his title is “A battle of power players in a World Cup with its own rules”
Cricket, they say, is a funny game. But maybe it’s a little less funny than it used to be. Look at this week’s World Cup semi-finalists, and all you say is … well, yes. South Africa v New Zealand, Australia v India: if not perhaps in these precise configurings, it’s this foursome who have stood out from about midway through the Cup, each on their day being capable of beating another.
Look through the annals of the World Cup and it’s seldom been unarguable that the semi-finalists have been composed of the best four teams — and ironically that’s partly due to the teams playing today.
The evidence of this World Cup has been that in modern one-day cricket today, power will win out. Upsets, boilovers, tight finishes — these suddenly seem rather 20th century. Teams have been blasted to smithereens. When batsmen are entrenched, bowlers exposed and captains inhibited by field restrictions, it’s almost like watching the wings pulled off butterflies.
More than 10 runs in an over used to be considered an event. Now it is occurring every seventh over. And there have seemed at this Cup vast disparities in quality between the best and next best. Watching New Zealand and England play in Wellington was like putting an instalment of True Detective up against an episode of Midsomer Murders.
New Zealand signalled their new seriousness on the eve of the World Cup by flogging their opponents today, sans Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, in Christchurch.
Trent Boult hinted at his harvest to come with 5-51; Daniel Vettori bowled parsimoniously and Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson made breezy half-centuries. There’s been a thematic unity to the Black Caps’ campaign since, reinforced by selection continuity and co-host status.
They must make today their first forced change, and there is no ready-made replacement for Adam Milne’s height and heat. But no team has seemed quite so self-sufficient and self-organising in the last month, quick to regroup after ragged moments like their middle-order subsidence against Australia and a flaky last 10 overs against Bangladesh.
McCullum may be tempted to hold back some overs from Boult today to counteract South Africa’s system of 12-an-over surging through the last 15. Then again, he may not. What’s impressive about McCullum’s leadership is his being wedded to nothing he tries; he turns ideas over fast and decisively, as though working not from a captaincy manual but a flipchart.
If you smudged the word ‘‘nation’’ in a fascinating interview McCullum gave All Out Cricket last year, he could have been describing running an internet start-up: “One thing that we have going for us as a nation is that we’re small and we’re dynamic; we can chop and change our plans pretty quickly and that’s how we’re going to compete against bigger teams more regularly.
“We can afford to be a little braver than a nation who perhaps has more at stake or more to lose in certain situations.”
“More at stake” and “more to lose”? McCullum could here almost have been profiling South Africa who, with so much hope, prayer and politics invested in their progress, have taken to the semi-finals an unexpectedly circuitous route. Their country’s own sports minister has entreated them not to return as “a bunch of losers” — and winning and not losing can be ideas awkward to reconcile.
Too much can be read into a team’s public rhetoric. Press conference remarks are seldom meaningful or candid, and usually as binding as politicians’ non-core promises. But about South Africa’s, every word has been an invitation to interpretation.
In Australia last November for five one-day internationals and three T20 internationals, South Africa played a hesitant, halting, rather introspective cricket. “Maybe we over-thought things,” mused AB de Villiers afterwards. “Maybe we’ve been over-analysing things a little bit.”
On the eve of the Cup, de Villiers looked accordingly to play down its significance. “The World Cup is important but it’s just another tournament, that’s probably the biggest lesson I have learnt,” he said.
There then appeared a lack of clarity around the team’s best XI — particularly after the omission of Ryan McLaren — and on how to treat the preliminaries.
The Proteas seemed unprepared for India’s incandescence at the MCG, oddly diffident in the face of Pakistan’s aggression at Eden Park, each time looking to their captain in a way that New Zealand has learned not to. JP Duminy, improbably, put defeat in the latter game down to indifferent motivation: “The hunger probably wasn’t there from a batting perspective.”
Motivation oozed from the team’s vehement and comprehensive quarter-final rout of Sri Lanka last week. But Sri Lanka were always this Cup’s pretenders, a Potemkin cricket team behind the facade of Kumar Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Other teams have sought to test South Africa’s fifth bowler; Sri Lanka donated him a hat-trick.
With its curious dimensions and distinctive floodlights, Eden Park is actually not quite the Kiwi cricket citadel one imagines from its rugby reputation: New Zealand have lost more one-day internationals here than they have won, and prevailed at only three of their last dozen starts. But this World Cup seems to have created its own rules and parameters, independent of precedent, and ever further from funny.