A washout could swing Black Caps' fortunes
Chilly, windswept cricket ovals are what New Zealand expected in early June for the Champions Trophy. What they didn't vouch for were dusty spin bowlers' paradises, more akin to Kolkata than Cardiff.
So as anxious glances are cast to the skies tonight, with rain forecast, the pitch at Cardiff Wales Stadium will elicit the most furrowed brows because either New Zealand or England face an early exit from the tournament.
It is on the line for both sides. New Zealand hit the ground running at Lord's and Southampton, stuttered in Nottingham, then staggered home for victory against Sri Lanka. The Australian washout saved them from a tricky run chase and they enter today's match still atop group A but wobbling slightly. However, a washout will be enough for them to qualify.
England were on the top of the world and trying not to show too much glee at David Warner's hi-jinks and Australia's predicament. They were hot favourites against Sri Lanka to seal their semifinal spot, and posted a daunting 293-7 at The Oval. It wasn't enough and now a loss to New Zealand, or potentially even a washout, could see them punted from their own tournament.
Normally both sets of fast bowlers would be licking their lips at a bit of swing and seam, with a new Kookaburra ball from each end. Instead there's been neither. Spin is in, as a lack of rain and apparent unwillingness from groundsmen to use their hoses sees batsmen dealing with turn and variable bounce from the tweakers.
"The wickets haven't been as good for batting as you would have thought at this time of year. The ball hasn't swung and it's stopped in the wicket and been a bit two paced," New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said.
"In June in England you'd think they'd be quicker and more seamer friendly. The strength of this competition is you've got to adjust and all three venues are very different. Ultimately the best two sides will make the final."
If New Zealand can topple England, they get their rewards. Being top qualifier earns them a semifinal at The Oval on Wednesday, the best pitch of the three venues. Finish second and they return to Cardiff on Thursday, where they enjoy being based but still have nightmares about the surface on which they faced Sri Lanka, when they conjured a one-wicket victory as both sides made a 150 total look like cricket's Everest.
So New Zealand have joined in the fun and gone spin-heavy. No New Zealand team had bowled 30 overs of spin in a one-day international before Birmingham on Wednesday. But Daniel Vettori moved far more freely and will be hugely influential against a team who will play him with respect and look to attack at the other end.
That's where Mitchell McClenaghan comes in, New Zealand's wicket-taking machine, who has 26 from his first nine ODIs, including four bags of four and Alastair Cook for a duck the last time they met. Bowling in short spells he's captain Brendon McCullum's strike weapon if the spinners can apply the brakes. Senior paceman Kyle Mills has been a handy foil and with one wicket can become the Champions Trophy's highest wicket-taker. Tim Southee, meanwhile, is under a cloud with an ongoing ankle problem.
England's dangermen have been the power hitters, with Jos Buttler playing a whirlwind, match-winning knock at Trent Bridge, then Ravi Bopara doing the damage against Sri Lanka. New Zealand leaked runs at the death in Nottingham, where their plans were right but the execution awry.
"We had a good review of that game and we'll have another recap before this one," Hesson said.
New Zealand's batsmen will have to counter Graeme Swann's spin, and possibly some reverse swing, which England's pacemen achieved in Birmingham and Sri Lanka did in Cardiff. Questions still remain about the batting order when Martin Guptill misses out, and we'll never know if they would have chased down Australia's 244 on Wednesday despite Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson looking comfortable.
Opener Luke Ronchi got the backing of captain and coach and will have more licence to thrill, but choose his shots more judiciously. England paceman James Anderson will zero in, having removed Ronchi twice.
And Brendon McCullum, who with brother Nathan, have been the stars in the field for New Zealand, needs to step up with the bat. It's been a lean tour for the skipper with the willow, even if he's attacked confidently in the field.
McCullum is the one batsman England fear and a blazing knock is overdue as New Zealand's tournament wavers between comfortably qualifying for the semifinals, or a week off until their two tour-ending Twenty20 matches.
Sunday Star Times