On England’s ascent to the top of the world in white-ball cricket, New Zealand have been almost ever-present. They were the initial inspiration, then the opponents in a series of stunning World Cup fixtures full of thrills and spills.
Now, as England look to become the first men’s team to hold the ODI and T20 World Cups at the same time, the two sides meet again, in a semi-final in Abu Dhabi. The winner will meet Australia or Pakistan in Sunday’s final.
New Zealand shifted the bridesmaids tag at ICC events by winning the the inaugural World Test Championship this year, and have a strong claim to being the international game’s most consistent side across all formats.
They are yet to win a white-ball World Cup, however. Since 2015, the stories of England and New Zealand’s limited-overs cricket have seemed intertwined.
In that year’s 50-over World Cup, New Zealand humiliated England in Wellington. In the lowest ebb of a dismal tournament for England, the Black Caps bowled them out for just 123, then took only 72 balls to knock off the target in a day/night match that was over by dusk.
England’s response was to rebuild their side in the image of Brendon McCullum’s gallivanting team. The two played out an instant classic five-match series in England, full of runs.
A year later, they met in the semi-final of the T20 World Cup, with England showing how far they had come by playing what Moeen Ali yesterday described as the perfect knockout performance, in a seven-wicket victory.
And in 2019, it took the ludicrous method of boundary countback to decide the World Cup final (in England’s favour) after 102 overs of cricket could not.
Captain Kane Williamson, magnanimous as ever, reflected today that while at the time the entire episode “was very difficult to understand and perhaps didn’t make a lot of sense”, his team actually look back fondly on it. “It was an amazing game to be a part of and certainly all the guys, when it does come up in conversation, it’s looked back on fondly and appreciate that experience,” he said.
This time, New Zealand are very happy to position themselves as heavy underdogs.
“They are a very well balanced team playing some very good white ball cricket at the moment, so let’s hope we can create big upset,” said fast bowler Trent Boult. “There’s been some good history between the sides over the last wee while in white ball cricket, so I’m sure there’s a lot of people back home watching this one with interest.”
New Zealand have a clean bill of health and will send a settled, predictable side onto the park. England, though, are keeping their cards close to their chest after losing another key player, opener Jason Roy, to injury. He joins Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Sam Curran and Tymal Mills on the sidelines.
England have an adaptable, deep squad, and a number of ways to replace Roy. Jonny Bairstow (the favourite), Dawid Malan and Liam Livingstone are all competing for a promotion to open the batting. Batters Sam Billings (the favourite) and James Vince, and bowlers David Willey and Tom Curran will all have their eyes on his spot in the side.
Either way, the settled lineup that defined England’s four wins to open the tournament has been stretched by injuries to Mills and Roy, which rob them off a pacy left-arm death specialist and a talismanic opener.
England have plenty left in the tank, though, and a return to form for explosive hitter Livingstone was a major positive in the defeat to South Africa on Saturday. He launched Kagiso Rabada for three successive sixes, including the biggest of the tournament, registering at 112 metres.
Livingstone spoke today about his joy at getting some time in the middle during a quiet tournament with the bat, and revealed he and his team-mates are competing to see who can hit the longest six.
“We are in an entertainment business so I guess crowds want to see big sixes, so it’s certainly something we train hard for,” Livingstone told BBC 5Live. “We spend a lot of time in the gym to try build up our strength, then do a lot of range hitting to see how far we can hit it.
“It’s not necessarily about how many, but certainly how far we hit them. It comes from the golf course. We have that from our drivers off the tee, and cricket balls in the middle.”