As the Blackcaps came to terms with a famous victory, Tom Latham completing a routine catch behind the stumps off the bowling of Jimmy Neesham to dismiss Yuzvendra Chahal and book a place in the World Cup final, captain Kane Williamson had a look on his face like he couldn’t quite remember if he’d put his phone on charge before he left the hotel.
There was jubilation around him and there were deserved celebrations in the dressing room afterwards but from the look on Kane’s face right then you knew that this was far from job done and that’s how you know that this Blackcaps team means business. Four years ago the Cappies finally got over the hurdle in a World Cup semi-final. Six previous finals and six previous defeats. Grant Elliot with that legendary pop over the top off Dale Steyn’s bowling and they’d done it after forty years of trying. The entire nation roared as that ball sailed over the boundary and then a few days later they were thoroughly crushed by Australia in the final.
The old yarn goes that you’ve gotta lose one to win one. That only works if you’re self-aware enough to learn the lessons of the past and take measurement of what triumph at these things looks like and it’s probably fair to say the Blackcaps never really used to capitalise on those experiences before... because usually the experience itself was enough for them/us. Of all those six defeats there was only really one where we truly thought we were going to win: 1992 against Pakistan. Other than that we’re looking at a mixture of well-maybe-we’ll-get-lucky and just-happy-to-be-there vibes.
The Blackcaps have sneakily made four semis in a row now though, and one thing that helped immensely between 2011 and 2015 was that Guptill, McCullum, Taylor, Williamson, Vettori, and Southee all played in each of those two games, a core of players who had experienced that particular battlefield before. In fact McCullum, Taylor, and Vettori had been there in 2007 as well – which makes Ross Taylor pretty bloody special for having played in four consecutive World Cup semi-finals. Between 2015 and 2019 there’s been even more continuity, picking up the torch from the fellas before them. Ross Taylor is the OG but Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson have each played in three CWC semis, while Tim Southee played in the last two and was a sub fielder in this latest one. That matters. It matters that they’ve seen what it takes to win a knockout game, even if from the wrong side, and it matters that the pedigree of the occasion is familiar. This is how they’re able to keep doing a little bit better each time.
There are always a million little things that could change the outcome of any game of cricket and the best preparation in the world can’t make up for those little things that are out of your control. That 2015 semi-final against South Africa could have gone either way, it was that close of a game. But you couldn’t say that about the previous two defeats against Sri Lanka. Putting yourself in the mix is all you can hope for. If you control what you can control then eventually things will break right.
And, mate, did they ever break right against India this week? So many of those cheeky details combined to put the Blackcaps in a promising position. The two-day aspect, the weather conditions, a couple of Indian selections, a swinging new ball, the general underdog status... but those things mean nothing if you don’t execute. The Blackcaps owned the big moments. They handled the pressure better and they took their opportunities in that first hour of the second innings, which proved to be definitive.
Those are the kind of things you’re able to do when you’ve been there before and you know what it takes. Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, our two greatest ODI batsmen ever (and that’s not even up for debate), assessing conditions and settling for a sneaky 240-odd rather than risking it all for 280+, that’s experience and poise right there. That’s understanding how to deal with pressure. But it was the reaction at the end that was most reflective of all this because it signalled a new mentality in kiwi cricket. We’ve always been the plucky and loveable underdogs but here against India they weaponised that reputation, sucking the Indian team in with a grinding first innings and then ripping the heart out of their batting line-up with some devastatingly efficient new ball bowling.
There’s a ruthlessness here that hasn’t always existed for the nice guys of kiwi cricket. Not a brutal Aussie ruthlessness but a New Zealand flavoured ruthlessness which sees us simply playing to a consistently solid level, waiting for our opponents to blink first, and then gently turning the screws when they do. This current Blackcaps incarnation is a weaker team than Brendon McCullum’s revolutionaries of 2015 and we’ve seen what happens when things don’t work out in their favour and their opponents don’t blink first. Three straight defeats coming into the semis flexing that inability to arrest things when the game gets away from them. They could easily have been dismantled by India in this semi had those early wickets not arrived… and that’s the trade-off here: we don’t have the same x-factor as the 2015 team which could swiftly alter the momentum of a game – like McCullum’s innings against South Africa, for example.
But when things play out the way they did against India this is a Blackcaps team that can take those opportunities and that’s where Kane Williamson’s influence is strongest. The Blackcaps were unfazed coming into what should’ve been a daunting match, they were unfazed when they stunningly won, and they’ll be unfazed going into the semi-final in a way that even the 2015 lot weren’t.
From the moment Brendon McCullum’s stumps were shattered third ball by Mitchell Starc the occasion escaped them. Just getting there was such an emotional exorcism… the final itself came in the midst of that hangover and a ruthless team of the Aussie variety went about their work in winning another World Cup final. Ultimately, cliché alert: Australia wanted it more. McCullum’s team played the way they needed to play in order to maximise their potential, yet big risks don’t only come with big rewards and McCullum’s early dismissal in the final was just as influential as his incredible fireworks display in the semi. You win some and you lose some.
This team is different. This team lacks the blockbuster potential but it also lacks the fickleness that old Blackcaps teams often had – that tendency to lose wickets in bundles or toss up too many juicy half-volleys. A lot of that is down to Kane Williamson’s presence as a captain and leader on and off the park... but it’s also made possible by the path carved out by the 2015 team before them. Williamson’s lot benefit every day from the legacy that the McCullum’s lot left behind. They’ve harnessed the lessons of previous tournaments and they know that a steadily 80% approach (rather than risking 20% for the dream of 100%) is the one that might just win a World Cup… and that’s a level of belief, assuredness, efficiency, and sturdiness that we haven’t often seen from New Zealand cricket sides in knockout games – made possible by the experience of four years ago and four years before that.
So whether they lift the trophy against England on Monday morning or whether they’re absolutely munted, the one thing you can guarantee is that they’ll give you that consistently solid level. A few out of form batsmen aside, they’ll ground out their runs and at least make you work for your wickets. They’ll put the ball in the right areas more often than not. They’ll bring their best in the field. It won’t necessarily be enough, but they won’t go down easy.
Bloody hell… we might actually win this thing!? Surely not…
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