World Cup 2019: Soft-spoken giant-slayers ready for summit clash

New Zealand's importance at World Cup has been always been underplayed, yet it has managed to get the better of its fancier opponents in big matches with great consistency.

The soft-spoken Kane Williamson has led New Zealand brilliantly.   -  Getty Images

The World Cup wends it way back to London with its history, bustle, the subterranean maze of metro trains, a dry heat of 24 degrees above and the Wimbledon ballet of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After 47 matches, including four washed-out ventures, in a long-winding campaign that lasted a month and a fortnight, England and New Zealand have withstood the vagaries of form and will face off in the final at Lord’s on Sunday.

In the pre-tournament buzz, England was expected to press hard for the title while New Zealand stayed in the dark-horses corner. But as they consistently do in big-ticket events, the Black Caps persevered, progressed steadily, stayed under the radar, coped with losses and when it came to the big battles, New Zealand showed that it can be a giant-slayer.

South Africa felt the heat and succumbed in the 2015 edition’s semifinal at Auckland. In the latest version, it was India’s turn to walk into an opponent, who firmly believed that contests are won on the basis of what is being done ‘now’. History’s sheets and weighty statistics may not have many alluring details of New Zealand’s cricketing skills but it is a team that has flummoxed the best.

New Zealand has always found a way to make the big moments count.   -  Getty Images

Even Clive Lloyd’s mighty West Indians found touring New Zealand a taxing proposition. And when the great quartet of all-rounders – Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee, graced the game, the last named Kiwi’s prominence was a touch subdued when compared to the other three.

Blending with the environs perhaps comes naturally to a community which has coped with the old joke about there being more sheep than people in New Zealand. Stay low, give your best and have a laugh with your friends seems to be the underlying credo and this no-frills attitude spills over into sport.

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Kane Williamson’s men enjoyed a perfect start in the current World Cup, defeating Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, South Africa and the West Indies before suffering losses against Pakistan, Australia and England. The momentum of those initial wins offset the lack of tailwind while the league phase concluded. It was just about enough for New Zealand to edge past Pakistan on the basis of net-run-rate after the two drew level at 11 points each.

In the semifinal, New Zealand revived India’s old nemesis - good quality swing and seam bowling and backed it with athletic fielding where limbs were stretched to the maximum and gravity was constantly defied. The parched-earth policy affected Virat Kohli and company, and New Zealand yet again had pulled off the great heist.

The New Zealand players pose with their families after the semifinal win against India.   -  Getty Images

After that nerve-sapping tussle, most of the New Zealanders walked barefoot, allowed their kids to have a romp on the turf, families sauntered in and there was a spirit of a congenial village fair out on the greens. Williamson and his troops allowed the moment to sink in, seemingly slowed down the seconds and it was all about living in the present.

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It is time for the hardest test now in which a host leaning on muscular batting, potent fast bowlers and hollering supporters, hopes to have its own moment of glory in the hallowed portals of Lord’s. Williamson would have by now factored in a ‘Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats’ analysis of the imminent summit clash.

“On any day anyone can win,” has been his preamble and in that generalisation, he has sensed an opportunity, a levelling of fortunes where terms like ‘favourites’ and ‘underdogs’ cease. He has led from the front both through runs (548) and in his gentle demeanour.

Since we are in England, perhaps it can be mentioned that as a batsman he has proved to be a right-handed version of David Gower and when it comes to leadership, the bearded, gently smiling, slow-talking Williamson has tapped into his inner Mike Brearley. Style and intelligence have found a common platform and equally, the New Zealand skipper has infused belief within his ranks and now one more tilt at glory, awaits.