There is no better finals cricket preparation for Aotearoa's Blackcaps than their last round robin fixture against England. Everything about this game will feel like a knockout game and while the journey of this World Cup has led kiwis to be sussing out finals cricket given how the Blackcaps set up base in the top-four, the worst case scenario of Aotearoa getting smoked by England and other results falling against the Blackcaps, could see them slide out of finals contention.
The beauty of such cricketing moments is that we get to see who is really about this life. For so long we sit through different tours and series that come with minimal pressure, or even just buzz and hype. World Cups are where we feast, having been starved of ODI games with immense context or meaning, the type of games that can take a job-doing battler into the hero realm.
Hence, I'm fizzing. This World Cup has seen Lockie Ferguson establish himself as one of the world's best seamers and my ponderings about which batsman would hit a nek level to command attention, were followed by Jimmy Neesham doing his best to drag Aotearoa to a competitive total vs Pakistan. Colin Munro and Matt Henry lost their chance to perform when it matters most, perhaps leading to slightly crazier opportunities for Henry Nicholls and Ish Sodhi.
And I could work through a list of any player not named Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor or Trent Boult. The Blackcaps last two losses came with Williamson and Taylor both unable to score 50+ which is obviously not a coincidence, while Boult steadily takes wickets and executes his role to a world-class standard.
For the rest of the Blackcaps, this is the moment to make a move. Considering that the pitch in Durham has recently seen South Africa cruise to a big win over Sri Lanka chasing 203 down, losing just 1 wicket @ 5.51rpo and then Sri Lanka and West Indies both score over 300, there's a strong chance of England going large with the bat. Much will depend on who bats first etc, however my focus is going to be zoned in on Tom Latham either way as someone who is in the funkiest spot.
Of course, Martin Guptill needs a score and Nicholls would be wise to make the most of this dig. It will be nice if Colin de Grandhomme can go whack whack mode when it matters and I'd appreciate some Neesham batting nous if he's tasked with coming to the crease around the 30th over mark. There is no shortage of questions and intrigue among the batting line up as to who is legit going to take over the batting innings, with Latham quietly hoping for the best.
Latham's the most intriguing because he's the least attacking. Keep in mind that runs have flowed in recent games at Durham and that the kiwis are up against England, who have put all their eggs in the 300+ identity basket. How Latham deals with the scenarios that this game throws up could be monumental, not only for the remainder of this World Cup via Latham getting a buzz of confidence, but also in sealing the ODI wicket-keeping job that may otherwise slip through Latham's gloves if his slump continues.
There is enough power/strokers around Latham to allow him to do what he does best in working the ball around, rotating strike and being generally solid. England will load up on Williamson and Taylor, which will either see them dismissed or unable to shake free of the bowling, thus Latham will either have a chance to set up the innings, or keep the game flowing in the middle stages. Equipped with the skill to deal with strong seam bowling, as well as any threat an under-performing Adil Rashid (7w @ 57.57av/5.84rpo) offers, Latham should be able to impact this game.
But he's low, slumping in the slumplands. A tournament environment exposes your weaknesses and lacking confidence can very easily snow-ball into a poor tournament, meaning that there are few signs of Latham finally cracking some runs. Any score over 250, will require something from Latham and even if the Blackcaps do well without Latham's contribution, finals cricket looms and no one wants Latham's slump to wiggle into a semi-final.
Ish Sodhi has been the topic in terms of the bowling department, having come in for Henry to face Australia. Everyone reading this, would have heard about threat spin can offer to counter England's attacking batsmen early in the innings and playing the Sodhi/Santner combo would best allow that strategy to be put into action. I'm unsure of the role spin will play for either team though and the spin strategy would be a bold, isolated move from Aotearoa; exactly the funk we've all been waiting for.
In the passive, safe ideals of this Blackcaps group, such a move would be weird. Keep in mind that the last two Durham games that saw heaps of runs scored, saw 26 wickets taken and just 3w were taken by spinners. Then consider that 13 bowlers have taken 12+ wickets in this World Cup, all are seamers and the two best spinners so far in Shakib Al Hasan and Yuzvendra Chahal both average over 30.
In favour of playing two spinners and/or opening with spin is the anti-England tactic, which is mostly specific to England's openers and perhaps the dry conditions that may boost the spin-ability on a used pitch. Not only has spin played a limited role at Durham and in the World Cup, Aotearoa's spinners aren't exactly in amazing form; neither Sodhi nor Santner is commanding that opportunity.
Sodhi couldn't get more than 6 overs vs Australia, his first chance of the World Cup and Santner has 3w total with no wickets in his last 3inns. It would be a massive leap to give Sodhi the new-ball in his 7th over of the tournament, or Santner who hasn't resembled a wicket-taking threat throughout the entire tournament. Even if we ignore the new-ball stuff and focus on playing two spinners, there is very little evidence to suggest that Sodhi and Santner will be the saviours.
Which is exactly why this is awesome. How we got to this point ain't awesome and it's kinda silly how the Blackcaps appear to stumble into this selection/performance nooks, but now we see who is really capable of dominating this game. England won't fear Aotearoa's seamers unless it's hooping and the spin funk may be the best chance at ripping through their batting line up.
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Peace and love 27.