If New Zealand’s players are not miffed at being perennially underrated, they have the patience of monks, for not one of them ever lets on. But, irrespective of what the rankings show, or how the team from the Land of Long White Cloud have done in the months leading up to a global event, they are underrated, not just by neutral fans, but by cricket journalists the world over. Perhaps, a reason why New Zealand’s players don’t challenge this notion is the prospect that other teams may buy into this misconception.
Make no mistake, New Zealand is a dangerous team, and it took only 5.2 overs for it to show England just what it are capable of on Saturday night. Without Ross Taylor getting a chance to come to the crease, or Corey Anderson being allowed to open those broad shoulders, New Zealand put it past England, earning itself what could be a valuable win in the race to make it to the final four.
South Africa, which plays New Zealand in the first match of the day on Monday (March 24) at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium, is not a team accustomed to taking the opposition lightly. For years now, South Africa has been among the most well drilled and professional units around, and it has set the standards for fitness and fielding in the shorter versions of the game.
That said, a South Africa v New Zealand match lacked the romance of a genuine cricket rivalry, and certainly had nothing on the Springboks v All Blacks rugby fixture. If you put together a pairing of any two of the stronger teams in world cricket, you would be hard pressed to find another match up so shorn of hype and a straight cricket shootout.
“We’ve never tackled them on the cricket field,” said Kane Williamson, breaking into a grin, when asked if the cricket rivalry had the same legs as the rugby one. “We have got a lot of respect for them, they’re a very good side in all formats. We’re looking forward to the challenge of playing against some of the best players in the world."
If New Zealand was respectful towards South Africa, the feeling was certainly mutual. “Yeah, they are a tough challenge, definitely,” said JP Duminy. “I guess if you look at the way they’ve been playing the last few months, they’ve come into this tournament with a lot of confidence, so it’s going to be an uphill battle for us, but I’m confident that we have the armoury to give ourselves the best chance. They’re a really good side, especially in the shorter formats, so we’re going to have to bring our A-game on Monday.”
After opening with A-game talk, Duminy dipped once more into the bag of modern cricketing clichés when asked if South Africa’s second game of the tournament would be easier than the first, simply because it won’t have to deal with a bowler of Lasith Malinga’s unique skill and ability. “NZ probably doesn’t have that X-factor bowler but they’re still going to bring their A-game, no doubt,” said Duminy. “They’ve been playing good cricket so it’s not a game to take lightly. In the first game you’re always trying to feel your way into the tournament, trying to figure out the conditions. If you look at yesterday’s games, the conditions were totally different to what we played in the warm-up games. So we felt our way through it and adjusted accordingly.”
Duminy conceded that, having lost the first game, there will little room to manoeuvre for the South Africans. “There’s always going to be that added pressure on us now, depending on how other results go we’re probably going to have to win all three,” said Duminy. “We want to make sure that we give ourselves the best chance in this tournament and that unfortunately means winning the last three games. That’s what it is and we’re going to have to play accordingly.”
What helps South Africa’s cause is the pitch at Chittagong. Firm and full of runs, the surface is the opposite of what visiting teams such as South Africa usually come up against on bilateral tours of the region. “It was a really good wicket, there wasn’t a lot of turn, which makes it easier to post high totals. Sri Lanka started well, which put us on the back foot up front but the way we came back was really good,” said Duminy. “Going forward, it’s probably going to get a little bit slower and lower as wear and tear comes into the game, so again we’re going to have to make sure we play accordingly and adjust as quickly as possible.”
When asked if there was any progress in terms of the fitness of Faf du Plessis and Dale Steyn, the X-factor talk returned. “We hope Faf is good to go by the next game,” said Duminy. “As for Dale Steyn, he was obviously fit to play and he put in a good performance, bar the first over. He’s a guy that is the X-factor for us so we’re going to need his services.”
South Africa is going to need more than just Steyn’s services if it wants to go deep in this tournament. Talking about A-games and X-factors is all very well, but at the end of the day, winning usually boils down to wickets and runs. And this is what New Zealand will be banking on.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Hashim Amla, Farhaan Behardien, Quinton de Kock, AB de Villiers (wk), JP Duminy, Beuran Hendricks, Imran Tahir, David Miller, Albie Morkel, Morne Morkel, Wayne Parnell, Aaron Phangiso, Dale Steyn, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
New Zealand: Brendon McCullum (capt), Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Colin Munro, Anton Devcich, Corey Anderson, Jimmy Neesham, Luke Ronchi (wk), Tim Southee, Kyle Mills, Nathan McCullum, Mitchell McClenaghan, Trent Boult, Ronnie Hira.