Twenty20 cricket eh, bloody hell.
This story first appeared on The Bounce, a substack by Dylan Cleaver.
To sum up the sheer ridiculousness of the format, consider this: after 16 overs New Zealand had less than a 10% chance of winning; four legitimate deliveries later they were favourites.
Those four balls? Six, two leg byes, four and six. Throw in a couple of wides as Chris Jordan’s mind starts to scramble like the seam on the Kookaburra ball and you have a brief anatomy of a turnaround.
It was a poor over by Jordan, no way of sugarcoating it, and it was wonderful ball striking by James Neesham, but the match was won in the fine margins. That second six was caught on the boundary by Jonny Bairstow and relayed into his teammate – Liam Livingston, I presume – but not before his knee touched the rope.
It was shades of Trent Boult at Lord’s in 2019 during the match we shall never speak of again, but this time luck had switched sides. As if to emphasise it, Jordan also came millimetres from taking a one-handed special on the boundary that would have dismissed Daryl Mitchell, but the ball bobbled out of his hand and onto the rope for six.
My initial aim was to write something smart and big-picture driven; something that captures the essence of this team that under the stewardship of the even-keeled captain Kane Williamson and coach Gary Stead has reached three ICC finals in succession. But that would be selling the match short.
It defies the sort of overarching analysis beloved of sports writers because it had no narrative arc, no rhythm, no dominant figure. It was a collection of incidents and vignettes powered by an ensemble cast of role players. For the vast majority of the match England nailed their lines slightly better than New Zealand but then, you know, that over. The match got a little off-script long before that, however.
Trent Boult, arguably New Zealand’s most accomplished bowler, was poor by his standards, going wicketless and conceding 40 off his four overs. Mitchell Santner, Williamson’s safety-blanket through the middle overs, bowled just six balls as the captain chose to protect him from England’s Moeen Ali, a batsman who feasts on left-arm orthodox spin.
Instead the ball was tossed to Glenn Phillips for a misguided over that was fortunate to concede just 11. It was part of an adventurous evening for Phillips who cut his hand while careering over the hoardings before muffing a simple catch off the final ball of the innings when he lost his feet from under him. To add embarrassment to injury, Phillips was the man chosen to speak to the cameras between innings while the unfortunate bowler, Neesham, looked like he’d left a restaurant to find that somebody had keyed his Tesla.
England’s 166-4 was good, but there was also a sense that New Zealand had done well to avoid an onslaught.
When Martin Guptill was dismissed in the first over, England’s odds shortened considerably. What followed was worse. Williamson has not been himself this tournament, unable to practice as he nurses a long-term elbow complaint. The keys to his mastery are hard work and repetition. Nobody devours a throwdown like the New Zealand skipper, so it is hardly surprising that he looks dreadfully out of sync. You’ll likely never see this written again but it was a blessed relief when he awkwardly paddled a ball straight into the air. His five off 11 balls was not good, but there was potential for it to be worse had he stuck around any longer.
We’re only a few overs into the chase and already four of New Zealand’s most accomplished and experienced campaigners – Williamson, Guptill, Boult and Santner – are destined to be non-events.
The Black Caps cued up a face-saving partnership, and the cameras relentlessly cued up the parents of Daryl Mitchell and Devon Conway. John Mitchell hasn’t enjoyed this much television exposure since he was trying to save his job following the 2003 Rugby World Cup. His son is a good player, though. A smart player. A nerveless player.
Mitchell and Conway, both 30, are new to the international scene but show the benefits of entering the sport’s upper reaches fully formed. They both “know their game”, one of those empty clichés that suddenly takes on meaning at times like this. Neither was striking the ball particularly well, but the partnership of 82 in 11 overs kept the team in the hunt until Conway (46) ran past a Livingston slider and Phillips (2) succumbed to the same bowler with the total at 107. New Zealand again had no price.
You pretty much know what happens from here. As Jordan folded, Neesham (27 off 11) went nuts and when he left, Mitchell (72 not out from 47) took over. But there’s something, a tiny sketch, that might have gone unnoticed.
On the first ball of the 18th over, Neesham hit a straight drive down the ground for a simple single. Mitchell tells him to turn back because he accidentally got in the way of the bowler’s attempt to field the ball. It happens all the time and the batsmen take the one – the luck of the draw and all that. Mitchell doesn’t, the batsmen stay put. In certain circles, that would be described as “lacking a killer instinct”. Neesham hits the next ball onto the grass banks.
The Black Caps have mastered the art of doing the right thing and being hard-headed all at once.
That, perhaps, is the big picture I was looking for.