Mitchell Santner didn’t mince words when talking about New Zealand’s next opponents, India. For all the ‘nice boys’ tag that hangs around their necks, the Black Caps are known to be ruthless on the field, especially at World Cups. They have a history of flying under the radar, largely unnoticed, but as they leave Chennai after making it four wins out of four with their 149-run victory over Afghanistan on Wednesday, New Zealand look every bit prepared for India.
Despite getting past Australia and Pakistan, India know New Zealand will be a hard nut to crack at Dharamsala, more so if the conditions are to the liking of the Black Caps. And Santner, who went top of the wicket-takers chart with his three-wicket haul against Afghanistan that took his tally at this World Cup to 11, said that they don’t need to go away from their game plan against the hosts.
“I think we have to do similar stuff to what we’re doing: chip away, build pressure, do our things, see what happens.”
This wasn’t Santner just playing to the gallery or indulging in mind games. This is what New Zealand have been doing in the four matches they have played, where they have even thrashed the defending champions. Of course, wins in Chennai against Bangladesh and Afghanistan did arrive on expected lines, but ahead of a key run of fixtures against India, Australia, South Africa and Pakistan, they are placed comfortably as even a couple of defeats won’t do their prospects of a semifinal spot not much harm. But strictly going by how they have fared so far, such outcomes look far-fetched.
On Wednesday, for the first time in this World Cup, they were put through a testing period by the Afghanistan bowlers, especially their spinners. Without Kane Williamson, New Zealand didn’t flinch when put under pressure. Instead, in Glenn Phillips – a batsman who has a history of struggling against spinners – and Tom Latham, they found the heroes who rescued them.
Phillips’ batting in these conditions was a cause of concern not so long ago. During the tour of India earlier this year and at the IPL, all it needed to dismiss him was someone who could get the ball to spin. Not employing the sweep – the go-to shot for most overseas batsmen who are not comfortable using their feet – Phillips had to stick to his strength of playing from the crease. It is something former West Indies captain Ramnaresh Sarwan had suggested to him during his stint with Jamaica Tallawahs in the Caribbean Premier League.
“I guess the way a lot of boys play over here – sweeping really well and reverse-sweeping really well – but unfortunately I don’t have that quite in my gameplan or to the level I’d be happy to use it consistently in a match. So, for me, it’s about sticking to my strengths: play from the crease and I do have power. But also the beauty of batting at No.6 is that you have the opportunity to soak pressure or mount pressure [on the opposition], depending on the time you come in. So, [it’s] about being able to flip between the two depending on what the team needs,” Phillips, who picked up the Player of the Match award, said.
Thanks to the 144-run stand between Latham and Phillips for the fifth wicket, New Zealand piled 288/6, a target that proved way beyond Afghanistan’s reach as they were bowled out for 139 with Lockie Ferguson and Santner picking up three wickets each. It was the ideal performance that the Kiwis needed before they run into India’s batting line-up that looks red hot at the moment.
“Obviously, it’s nice to be in this position to lead into this (India) game, but we know it’s such a long tournament and one loss isn’t going to hurt you if you win the rest – or you kind of look at that at the start. So, we know they’re playing some very good cricket. I think the Powerplay with the ball is going to be very important,” the left-arm spinner said.
Striking in the Powerplay has been New Zealand’s biggest strength with the ball. As Trent Boult and Matt Henry showed here on an unresponsive track, they are capable of getting the ball to swing and seam. And once they got an opening, Ferguson took over, providing the knockout blows before Santner chipped in at the end.