Peaking at the right time

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Stephen Fleming's New Zealand has the variety and the depth to mount a serious challenge in the World Cup. It is one of the strong contenders for a place in the semifinals. Nandita Sridhar takes a look at the team's chances in the Caribbean.

Thanks to the recent reverses suffered by Australia in the Commonwealth Bank Series finals and the Chappell-Hadlee Series, the World Cup seems so open that some players are on a desperate scramble for fixing broken bones. One of them even talks of amputating his troublesome finger, and this is no loose-tongued, inebriated statement considering that all the teams seriously believe they can win the Cup and realise that this is the best chance they will ever get.

The Kiwis are quite confident. After two historic run-chases and the sweep of the Chappell-Hadlee Series against Australia, the same New Zealand team that failed to qualify for the tri-series final in Australia is now dreaming of winning the World Cup. The team that was heavily criticised by its media for the batting lapses in Australia is now riding on its two path-breaking batting performances.

The New Zealand teams of the past seemed to have everything, but lacked that extra something needed to win the World Cup. Slotting the current team in the same category would not be fair to its members for the squad now has the variety and the depth to regard itself as a serious contender for a place in the semifinals.

New Zealand's batting looks good and Ross Taylor has been the revelation. Capable of playing a destructive innings, the modest Taylor's shot-making skills have fetched him plenty of runs in the tri-series in Australia and the Chappell-Hadlee series.

With due respect to his skills as a salesman, Craig McMillan is better off indulging in batting pyrotechnics. It was quite a comeback for the 30-year-old who considered taking up an alternative career as a salesman after he was dropped from the New Zealand squad.

Peter Fulton looks to have a steady mind and a steadier bat, while the under-rated Brendon McCullum can be counted on for the end-over sixes and a lot more. A fit Jacob Oram and Scott Styris make it a bit of an overcrowded middle and lower order. Lou Vincent is back where he belongs at the opening slot and Stephen Fleming might just produce an inspirational knock like he did in the last World Cup.

Batting is definitely New Zealand's strength. It's the bowling that might be a bit of a worry, especially at the death.

Successfully chasing 300-plus totals has taken the focus away from the fact that their bowlers had conceded all those runs to the opposition. The team's bowling mainstays are Shane Bond and Daniel Vettori. On the slow and low tracks in the West Indies, Vettori probably has his best chance to flourish, though flat wickets might not work to his advantage. Bond, meanwhile, will have to stay fit throughout the tournament.

World Cup wilderness has been too much for Daryl Tuffey to handle, and his success in the Caribbean looks iffy. Jeetan Patel and Styris can prove to be quite a handful on their day, while James Franklin will need to improve on his consistency. Mark Gillespie is quick, but is he ready for the mega event?

The crucial cog in the bowling wheel will be Oram, provided his broken left ring finger heals well enough so as to not affect his bowling.

In Stephen Fleming, the Kiwis have the most reliable head in the business. Composed and calculative, his captaincy has played a big part in channelling his team's ability to rise to the situation. As far as dogged determination and efforts go, the Kiwis have rarely slipped.

The Kiwis, however, haven't managed a spot in the final despite four semifinal appearances. Their only major tournament win was the 2000 Champions Trophy, which doesn't do justice to what they bring to the field.

The issue of confidence doesn't look like bogging them down in this edition. The team might just be peaking at the right time, and the wickets should suit them.

Fleming endorses the `open' Cup opinion that most teams other than Australia echo. "We're going to a World Cup with teams beating each other," he said.

"I guess that's the exciting thought, and the scary thought, that on any given day one of eight teams could win this World Cup. I don't think the world is focussing on Australia. I think there are other teams that will be just as dangerous."

New Zealand is one of the dangerous teams. If ever there were a perfect World Cup preparation by them, it would have to be the blanking of Aussies 3-0.

Players to watch

Shane Bond: It's not so much about how many wickets he takes, but how many matches he lasts. With Shane Bond, all that his skipper needs to worry about is the bowler sending down 10 overs. The wickets will come. New Zealand's main strike bowler needs to be used judiciously. Resting him for at least one of the matches against Kenya and Canada and using him against England should keep the bowler in good rhythm for the Super-Eight.

Bond's pace and swing can be lethal in all conditions. He relies very little on the surface and can destroy the best in the business. With 17 wickets in eight World Cup matches, including a brilliant six-wicket haul against the Aussies in a losing cause, Bond can be expected to do even better in the West Indies.

Ross Taylor: He is an exciting prospect for the World Cup. The 23-year-old batsman played a major role in New Zealand's run chase in the second match of the Chappell-Hadlee ODI series against Australia. His aggressive batting is classy, which makes watching him enjoyable. A good shotmaker, Taylor is the player the Kiwis needed after Nathan Astle's retirement.

Jacob Oram: His role will be more pronounced in the Super-Eight, provided his broken finger heals in time. A destructive bat and a nagging off-stump line bowler, he looks like staking a claim for being one of the best all-rounders in the business. He has a chance to do better than last time, when he scored just 35 runs in three innings, and collected 14 wickets in eight matches.

Oram's bowling has been far from impressive in recent times, but a broken left ring finger means that it will be his batting that will be the most affected.

Daniel Vettori: His role assumes importance due to the conditions in the West Indies. His current form notwithstanding, the pressure to perform well should spur him on. Though he favours wickets with pace, the 28-year-old left-arm spinner said that he would have to adapt to the conditions in the Caribbean. His performance last time was just two wickets in seven matches, but his role then was to contain the opposition. This time too he will be expected to contain the batsmen, but New Zealand's lack of sufficient frontline bowlers puts the additional pressure on him to perform, especially at the death.