Unbeaten New Zealand, unpredictable West Indies. The qualification paths for the two sides playing the final quarter-final were poles apart. New Zealand’s progress was sealed with a six by Kane Williamson against Australia (apologies to MS Dhoni) while West Indies’ was sealed with a scamper against UAE.
New Zealand’s three early games in a week gave them a kick start and left them well ahead of the pack. Since then, especially after the drama of the Australia game, they have often been kicking their heels waiting for their subsequent matches. They completed their group stage, sitting comfortably top of the pile, then waited to see who they would meet in Wellington.
West Indies, by contrast, have always been at the centre of the will-they, won’t-they debate. An opening-match defeat against Ireland was always likely to leave them battling, but back-to-back wins against Pakistan and Zimbabwe sparked them only for heavy defeats against South Africa and India to threaten elimination. Then there was concern over the weather; they allowed UAE to fight back from 46 for 6 but in the end got home with time to spare.
Brendon McCullum and Mike Hesson have been keen to stress they believe New Zealand have been stretched at various stages of their qualifying campaign. That is true, but none of them were the ultimate make-or-break moment. Momentum, and perhaps a little belief, was on the line – but not their World Cup campaign. West Indies have had to play every day as though it might be their last.
Now form and the manner of qualification can mean everything and nothing at the same time. It is a point that has not escaped those with a close eye on New Zealand’s fortunes. On the eve of the tournament, McCullum actually picked out his greatest fear as being that one, uncontrollable display that takes the game away.
“When you talk about major fears that’s probably it. You’re dominating a game, in a position of authority and one of those match-winners comes out and takes game away from you,” he said back in Christchurch before New Zealand faced Sri Lanka.
The belief around New Zealand has strengthened throughout the tournament, but the fear of the one-off remains. “The worrying fact is that when you get to quarter-finals, any one player in the opposition can have a great day,” said former captain Stephen Fleming. “It doesn’t matter who you play against – in the knockouts each team is going to have someone who can do that. That’s the only worrying aspect from an outsider’s perspective.”
And West Indies, for all their qualifying stresses, are as capable as any team of pulling a performance out of nothing. Chris Gayle has a bad back and Marlon Samuels can sleepwalk through a game, but they can both score big hundreds. Darren Sammy and Andre Russell can slog one up in the air, but also out of the ground. Jason Holder and Jerome Taylor can concede ten-an-over but also take 4 for 20.
West Indies have scored three individual hundreds to New Zealand’s one, but the top order limped against Ireland, India and South Africa (the latter in the face of 408 for 5). New Zealand were pushed to limited chasing 152 against Australia and needed most of their resources against Bangladesh, but were very convincing against Sri Lanka, England and Afghanistan.
Holder has already talked about getting into New Zealand’s middle order. While they eventually hauled themselves over the line against Bangladesh, it was not without problems. But, ultimately, they have still won. It takes a lot to break New Zealand’s belief at the moment, but West Indies’ confidence and composure forever seems on a knife-edge. On the ground where Tim Southee blitzed England with 7 for 33, New Zealand are likely to want to bowl first to allow him and Trent Boult to set the tone as they have so often done.
As Richard Hadlee stressed on Thursday, it is not just a month’s work on the line. “This is four years of planning and preparation to get to seven hours of cricket and if you’re good enough, you’ll get another seven hours,” he said. “Get it wrong in the quarter-final, drop a catch, top order fails, the bowlers don’t get it right, the fielding is not as good as it has been, those sort of things and it can all be over in that seven-hour period.”
Injuries have also impacted one side far greater than the other. Darren Bravo went home after two games, Gayle’s back injury is always looming and Sulieman Benn has also struggled. In contrast, the worst New Zealand have had to contend with is Adam Milne’s shoulder and few flying-ant bites in Hamilton.
Gayle, it seems, will appear come what may in Wellington. And that embodies the threat West Indies bring to the quarter-final. They are creaking, prone to imploding and forever on the cusp of another internal meltdown. Yet, they could ride on a performance from at least half a dozen of the team.
“When you think they’re down, one of their players comes out and plays an explosive innings or bowls a spell that can take you out of the game,” Hesson said earlier this week. “Sometimes it’s easier to play a side that’s a bit more predictable whereas the West Indies on their day are exceptional.
For all the scouting New Zealand will do, the videos they will watch and plans that have worked so well for more than a year it becomes difficult to prepare for a side who even themselves do not know which version will turn up.