What is the one feat that the two 2019 Cricket World Cup finalists share?
England and New Zealand are the only sides to have beaten India in this tournament. The Men in Blue were widely acknowledged pre-tournament favourites – you just had to get past them at some stage to lift this 2019 trophy. Beat them and you earn the right to lay a final challenge, the right to play at Lord’s, and attain glory at the Home of Cricket.
They did, both of them. England beat India in the group stage, while New Zealand did it in the semi-final at Manchester. Do you know why this holds meaning? Their respective wins underlined how these teams have gone about this tournament, what their brand of cricket is, and why it is such a contrast heading into this marquee clash on Sunday.
Turn back the pages. Three weeks ago, England were almost lost. An injured opener, conditions slightly different than anticipated, and two sub-par targets in this modern-day era, and the hosts were almost facing an exit. Then, they hit out at Edgbaston against the best bowling attack in this World Cup and won.
England rediscovered themselves that day. It was revealed later that the squad members had a heart-to-heart chat before facing India. The revelation is as important as that discussion. You see, for the past four years, this English side has instilled a fear-factor among their opponents by the manner in which they take command on the field through their awe inducing charge against the white ball. Weighed down by expectations, perhaps their own more than the watching public, that factor had been lost somewhere along the way.
Often, it is said you fight harder when you have nothing to lose. Whoever did say it, perhaps never experienced the desperation of wanting something badly enough, the obsession to win by going that extra mile, or the fight to stay afloat under that aforementioned weight of expectations.
This trait – whether you call it desperation, obsession, or just an unwillingness to sink – is what defines Eoin Morgan’s England. From 2015 to 2019, it has been a process of resurrection from embarrassing depths.
“It’s a culmination of four years of hard work, dedication, a lot of planning and it presents a huge opportunity to go on and try and win a World Cup. It’s a final; we are not going to shy away from that. We are not going to shy away from that, and we are going to enjoy the game (regardless of the pressure),” said Morgan on Saturday.
This is England’s third ODI World Cup final (in men’s cricket) in a sport they invented. None of their squad was born when they first made the final (here at Lord’s) in 1979. Perhaps, most of them were in nappies when England last made the World Cup final in 1992. This is where the first differentiation emanates – six of this current New Zealand squad were in the final only four years ago.
“I don’t know how I felt before that match (against Australia) in Melbourne. We were in a different part of the world, on a different surface, against a different opposition, and both sides were very different from four years ago. It’s kind of hard to compare against those times,” said Williamson on Saturday.
Undoubtedly, New Zealand were a different side back in 2015. Led by the mercurial Brendon McCullum, they learnt to punch above their weight. Was brushing past South Africa in the semi-final at Auckland any less heroic than edging out India this time around? Add the riders that Williamson is unable to define above, and you will not find the answer. Then again, you don’t have to – the Black Caps may carry spirit from that last World Cup, but in character, they are as chalk and cheese as McCullum and Williamson are.
There was an adventurous streak about them in 2015. This New Zealand side is more calculative than audacious.
Williamson spoke about how they read conditions early in Manchester, realised they were never going to get 300 runs, and decided to get what they could, defending 240-odd. This bit – reading conditions and adapting – has been their standout trait in the past six weeks.
Time and again, New Zealand have countered varying conditions. Even in the warm-ups, they played on two very different tracks against India and West Indies, and it just snowballed from there onwards. Trent Boult had spoken about it too – he told Scroll.in how adapting to different conditions was key to bowling here in England, and challenging different batting line-ups, in particular their top-orders.
The Black Caps have done just what they set out to do. They may not be a standout team with a high-scoring prowess – apart from Afghanistan they are the only batting line-up to not breach 300 in this tournament. But their bowling attack is proficient enough to constantly defend sub-par totals as they adapt to different surfaces on offer. Boult and company have restricted seven opponents to sub-300 scores in this tournament – the most by any team.
In that, they are fighters too – this is a cricket team that prides itself on attrition. This defines their journey from 2015 more than anything else – they let go off McCullum’s chutzpah and remodelled themselves around Williamson’s pragmatism. Perhaps none of their batsmen will step out against England bowlers on Sunday (unlike McCullum did against Mitchell Starc in 2015); instead, they will play around as per situation and conditions on offer, inspired by Williamson’s keen awareness and reading of the game.
Comparatively, their opponents are fearsome aggressors, not to mention the only batting line-up to breach that 300-mark against this Kiwi attack (305-8 at Chester-le-Street). Arguably, they are back at the heights of their audacity, and in this aspect, Morgan borrows more from McCullum than his counter-part. Even so, the skipper will also be mindful that England had to re-learn and re-adapt their batting plans in the middle of this tournament. They had to haul themselves back, and show a bit more respect to what lay ahead.
As such, the pitch at Lord’s, bearing a greenish tinge, will challenge both sides. It will ask New Zealand to adapt again from that slow semi-final surface in Manchester. It will ask England to step out of their comfort zone, one re-established by the home reliefs of Birmingham, against India earlier and against Australia in the semi-final.
It is in this battle of adaptation that Sunday’s final will be decided, and ODI cricket’s new champions crowned.