If New Zealanders had a choice of opponent in Sunday’s T20 World Cup final, the average preference would surely be anyone but Australia.
This isn’t about the power dynamics of relative size, because New Zealand’s defining characteristic as a cricket team has become the ability to match up against opponents with even more economic and population disparity than there is between the bookends of the Tasman Sea. But for other less tangible reasons, whether or not they involve the regional friendship and rivalry between the countries, Australia are indisputably New Zealand’s bogey side, the team that beats the Black Caps no matter how well either side is going. The past doesn’t always define the future, and there is of course no reason why this New Zealand team couldn’t be the one to break the pattern. A similar hold ended at this same tournament, when Pakistan ignored decades of World Cup losses to India with a powerful 10-wicket pasting. But the historical record includes very recent history, and it remains another obstacle to overcome.
The bogey dynamic was never more potent than in the 50-over World Cup in 2015. After rampaging through the tournament with a devastating scoring rate and equally furious spells of bowling, New Zealand crashed in the final when the other team wore green and gold. At the end of that same year, after decades of Test losses in Australia, New Zealand had been on a roll in Test cricket, dominating at home and winning tough series overseas. Yet they were flattened in Brisbane, lost in Adelaide, and went on to lose in Wellington and Christchurch, for a pair of 2-0 losses home and away. It was the same story in 2019-20, playing brilliantly against all other comers around the world but folding 3-0 when visiting Australia.
Different year, different format, different tournament. But that New Zealand have played so well so far, the way they thumped India, the energy of their semi-final triumph over favourites England, and that Australia have been less convincing through the group stage, all go out the window when the two teams face off.
One thing that won’t be so different is the players involved. New Zealand’s big four – Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill, Tim Southee and Trent Boult – all played in the losing 2015 50-over final. Seven members of Australia’s inevitable XI played against New Zealand in that campaign, and six in the final.
Australia’s push will rely heavily on their pace-bowling trio. None of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, or Pat Cummins has ever played New Zealand in 20-over cricket, but each has a dominant record against them across 50 overs. Aaron Finch and David Warner have made plenty of runs against the Kiwis batting at the top. Warner is back in top gear after his flying start in the semi-final win over Pakistan. Matthew Wade and Marcus Stoinis will be brimming with confidence after sealing that win as batting finishers. And Glenn Maxwell has barely been called upon, left not out without facing a ball in two of Australia’s group games.
Outside the big names, so much will rely on Adam Zampa. The leg-spinner has dominated the middle overs with smart bowling and confidence, and is the leading wicket-taker since the main stage of the tournament began with 12 in his six matches. He first proved his worth to national selectors by dominating one-day matches in New Zealand in 2016, and had the last meaningful pre-pandemic act in cricket in March 2020 when he bowled Williamson with a perfect wrong ’un before the New Zealanders abandoned their tour of Australia to beat a closing border back home. He will fear no one come Sunday.
For New Zealand, their spin duo of Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi will be equally important. Australian teams have consistently been undone by spin through the middle overs, when the scoring rate is clamped down and wickets follow. They may play a bigger part than the celebrated opening pace partnership of Boult and Southee, given just how familiar Australia’s players – especially those who have faced Boult repeatedly in the IPL – will be with how those two operate.
Then there comes the damaging blow for New Zealand of missing Devon Conway, who dealt himself a wound by punching his bat when he was dismissed in the semi-final, breaking a small bone in his hand when his strike missed the padding of his glove. It is a self-inflicted injury that his team could ill afford, given his importance to the middle order, and his importance in the World Test Championship win earlier this year that broke New Zealand’s trophy drought.
Ultimately, the Kiwis will have to remember the versatility they have showed in becoming a team bigger than the sum of its parts, to get past the fact that one vital part is missing. Daryl Mitchell has done a brilliant job as a pinch-hitting opener. Jimmy Neesham won the semi-final for them with firepower down the order.
Whoever is called upon to do a job must do it. If this team can hold its nerve to end the sequence of underperformance against Australia, the match-up that they would be most concerned about could also yield the sweetest victory.