The perennial dark horse of ICC events, New Zealand is a team most others would be advised to dismiss at their own peril.
Although few would consider it to be favourites to win the ICC World Twenty20 2012, the fact is New Zealand has made it a delightful habit to punch above its weight when it comes to big tournaments.
It speaks volumes that the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 marked the sixth time in New Zealand’s history that the team had reached the last four stage. For a team that’s hardly considered a powerhouse of cricket, to hold its own against cricketing giants is a remarkable achievement indeed.
And while New Zealand has never really come into big tournaments with a string of wins to its name, its form of late hasn’t exactly been inspiring. Plagued by injuries in its tour to the West Indies, New Zealand was outclassed in largely one-sided contests in all formats of the game. Blanked 2-0 in both the Twenty20 Internationals and the Test series by a resurgent West Indian outfit, its solitary win came in the One-Day International series which it lost 4-1.
Its shortcomings against spin were further exposed on its tour to India. While the bowlers managed to make India sweat in the Bangalore Test, the shots played by the batsmen against India’s spinners left a lot to be desired. Though, of course, the team redeemed itself to an extent by pulling off a 1-run win in the T20I against India in Chennai after the first match of the two-T20I series was washed out.
Spin is an area that New Zealand will have to work on, and work on quickly, if it is to pose a challenge to the other teams in the ICC World Twenty20 2012 to be held in Sri Lanka.
It faces a stiff test, having been clubbed with Pakistan and Bangladesh in Group D.
Both Pakistan and Bangladesh rely heavily on their spinners, and for New Zealand to realistically expect to progress beyond the first phase, it must learn not just to survive against the turning ball but also score runs at a reasonably quick rate.
Ross Taylor, however, can take solace in the fact that the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 was held in the subcontinent and his New Zealand side was the only team not from the subcontinent to make the semi-finals.
New Zealand’s best performance in ICC World Twenty20 tournaments came in the inaugural edition in 2007, when it made it to the semi-finals before losing to Pakistan. In the following two events, in England in 2009 and the West Indies the following year, it failed to advance to the knockout stages, and unless it finds a way to quickly overcome its obvious failings against spin, it will be hard pressed to even advance from its tough group.
The return from injury of Daniel Vettori, its former captain, will bolster New Zealand’s spin stocks, but it’s the batsmen who hold the key to its progress. Taylor will bank heavily on Martin Guptill and Brendon McCullum, the two free-flowing openers, to get the team off to flying starts that the middle-order can then build on.
But New Zealand will always remain wary of its susceptibility against the turning ball, and unless it can make quick mental and technical adjustments, it might find itself facing early elimination.