Andrew Alderson: Black Caps stand on cusp of greatness

Opinion:

The New Zealand test cricketers stand on the cusp of forging the country’s greatest achievement in the Summer Game this week at the inaugural world championship final… English weather willing.

More rain is forecast tonight at Southampton but, irrespective, they still have time to wrap the test if they can employ the bat-once-bat-well philosophy which has served them successfully in five of their 11 competition fixtures. The Black Caps are currently 101 for two in reply to India’s 217, so any opening lead will negate how much fourth innings spin they play and build a mental barrier for their opponents to scramble over in the circumstances.

That means partnerships. Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor or Henry Nicholls might assume an anchor role with BJ Watling, Colin de Grandhomme or Kyle Jamieson acting as support. Matters could get a touch ropey if that responsibility extends to an abrasive rearguard from Neil Wagner, Trent Boult or Tim Southee.

As manager Mike Sandle mentioned, during the build-up to international cricket’s ultimate jewel: “If a guy has scored a hundred or taken a five-wicket bag that’s great, but we also acknowledge the guy who may have bowled 10 overs into the wind or who batted in a partnership through tough periods to get his mate there.”

Similarly, former captain Brendon McCullum noted: “Aside from the odd blip, like in Australia [in the 3-0 loss], the Black Caps tour well because of their adaptability and malleability to conditions.

“If Southee, Boult, Wagner and Jamieson are presented with a Duke ball at Lord’s, you’d do well to confront that with any confidence. They’ll be a red-hot prospect.”

Perhaps insert “Rose Bowl” for “Lord’s” into that sentence and you have a recipe for glory leading into what should be at least two out of three days’ scheduled play left.

Those forecasts from Sandle and McCullum continue to hold weight. The third day in the field presented myriad examples.

Take the talismanic circus act of Watling behind the stumps. The 35-year-old leaped and tumbled like a rhythmic gymnast chasing the ball around Hampshire’s premier cricketing acreage, despite retirement on the horizon.

His wing span behind the stumps was albatross-like, covering what the Sky Sport coverage estimated was 6.3m of territory from left to right. No byes littered the statistics, and he met his dismissals quota, pouching his average of two per innings.

Shubman Gill’s came workmanlike from the toil of Neil Wagner angling across the right-hander; Ravindra Jadeja’s came courtesy of a swan dive to Watling’s right from a Trent Boult delivery drifting legside. In fairness, the ball probably deserved a harsher punishment than a glove brush.

Play also followed Tom Latham in the field like an incompetent private investigator. First, Rishabh Pant, with four from 21 balls, could not control the urge to free his arms. His attempt to larrup Jamieson over cover saw the ball flash to Latham at second slip. Second, Ajinkya Rahane fell for 49 lobbing a catch to square leg which wouldn’t have looked out of place at an under-8s practice session. Third, Ravichandran Ashwin struggled to put a disciplined lid on a pot of simmering aggression. He attempted to drive Southee through the covers and Latham, again at second slip, snaffled the chance falling backwards with his hands raised.

Other actions pointed to a juggernaut in process. Devon Conway chased dot balls bobbling into the offside, or slashes which pierced the gaps, like he will moonlight on the track team at next month’s Tokyo Games; Henry Nicholls crouched under the lid at short leg with enough enthusiasm to suggest he would be prepared to devote his annual leave to the pose; and Ajaz Patel selflessly commissioned himself beyond the boundary with the boot scraper to ensure those popping to third man or fine leg between overs returned to the bowling crease with clean cleats.

Such commitment to detail could eventually deliver major dividends, a prize purse of US$1.6 million to be precise, but that will likely mean less to this team than the knowledge they’re indelibly inked in cricket history.

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