Sunday, February 22, 2015

New Zealand v England, World Cup, 20 February 2015, the Cake Tin


The other day Corey Anderson said that the New Zealand team was a “juggernaut”, which in Britain describes a large truck. That makes England the rabbit transfixed by the headlights, unable to evade the inevitable squashing.

It was sheer joy at the Cake Tin yesterday. For a start, it was sweltering, a word we use sparingly in Wellington. My Khandallah correspondent, who has spent her life under the scorching sun of the upper North Island, passed the first two hours charting the approach of the shade towards our seats.

And I saw the best one-day bowling that I have ever seen; the most spectacular innings I have ever seen; and captaincy so rich in innovation and imagination that it moved me.

McCullum’s field-setting was worth the price of admission. He makes Mike Brearley—who once stationed a helmet at short extra cover—appear cautious and unresourceful by comparison.

The New Zealand captain is in the process of rewriting the one-day captaincy manual. There were three close catchers, then four, then five, then—for Morgan—six. It was breath-taking. McCullum rejects orthodoxy as if it were carrying the plague. His strategy is to restrict scoring by taking wickets. Ross Taylor could play for another 20 years if he can stand at first slip all innings.

McCullum’s conception of cricket’s possibilities is different and exciting. If all captains would commit to attack as he does, all fears about the future of 50-over cricket would be allayed. My Life in Cricket Scorecards is no musician, but watching Brendon McCullum lead a cricket team must be what it would have been like watching von Karajan at his peak conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. A little louder from the piccolos, a second gully. Slightly slower cellos, third man move squarer.

Regular wickets kept the pressure on England in the first part of the innings. Eoin Morgan looked as scratchy as a flea-ridden tabby, but is a good player who could relocate his form at any moment. At 104 for three, Morgan and Joe Root seemed to be close to restoring parity. Who would have guessed then that the game had fewer than 20 overs left to run?

They were a bit slow, mainly thanks to a miserly spell of six overs for 17 runs from Daniel Vettori, who reminded me of Derek Underwood. This was partly because Vettori is a highly skilled and very clever slow left-armer, but also because the batsmen were playing his reputation as much as his bowling. Time and time again I saw batsmen retreat into caution against Underwood because of the years they had spent watching the consequences of failure. Joe Root and his generation cannot remember a time when Vettori was anything other than a one-day tourniquet and it shows in their approach.

England appeared to have decided to play Vettori out, but Morgan’s resolve broke and he went for the big straight shot. My correspondent and myself had a perfect view of the ball coming towards us. It appeared to be about to pitch safe just short of the long-on boundary. But Adam Milne lengthened his last couple of strides before leaping full length, taking the ball in two hands in mid-air and landing safely. That was the moment the game turned on.

McCullum struck with the certainty of a lioness stalking a wounded wildebeest. Southee was brought on at once and immediately bowled Taylor with an outswinger so beautiful that Mark Antony would have spurned Cleopatra to kiss it.

Of course, other captains might have brought back their strike bowler against a new batsman, but fewer would have resisted the temptation to save some of that bowler’s overs for the death. They would have settled for 210 for eight. Only McCullum would have also bowled his other strike bowler out at the same time. 123 all out.

Seven wickets fell for nineteen runs. As an overseer of collapses Peter Moores could arrange a job swap with the Greek finance minister. Joe Root barely faced a ball during these overs, an example of the lack of intelligence that characterised England’s day.

Tim Southee was brilliant. Seven for 33 was the best performance for New Zealand in ODIs. His control of the ball and use of the crease could not have been bettered by Alderman, or even Hadlee. Four of the seven were bowled, all with a graze of the off stump (love the flashing bails by the way). The swing was not huge, but with such precision it did not have to be.

There was no doubt that McCullum would go after the bowling. His name and “steady accumulation” are antonyms. But the ferocity and accomplishment was beyond prediction, best recorded in his scoring sequence: 160044444016404606666401W. It was slugging not slogging, the quickest fifty in World Cup history (previous holder: B McCullum). As in every other aspect of the game, McCullum incinerates the text book and does it his way.

Anderson, Finn and Broad are seasoned international bowlers, but the experience of having an opening batsman rampaging down the pitch in the first overs appeared new to them. There was no plan. They didn’t know what to do.

The four consecutive sixes were off Steve Finn in an arc between cover and long off. One worries for Finn for whom, even more than most bowlers, confidence is the glue that holds his game together. Half an hour in the public stocks would have been no more humiliating.

On a desperate day for England, one member of the team deserves special mention. A woolly resident of any field in New Zealand selected at random would have brought more brainpower to the game than Stuart Broad managed. Who knows why, coming in at 110 for seven, he thought that the best way to deal with Southee (five for 28) was to try to belt him over long on? His first ball to McCullum fed the batsman’s signature lofted cut, and the rest of the over allowed the New Zealand captain to set off flying. That Broad should finish the game with a high-wide bouncer that flew over Buttler’s head to the boundary was somehow fitting.

I can barely express how much I enjoyed this game. New Zealand pushing back the boundaries of what is possible. England gloriously hopeless. Just when you think that cricket has given you all it can along comes Brendon McCullum who says “let’s make it a little bit better”. 

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