OPINION: The scene of another much larger New Zealand sporting heartbreak was an appropriate city for the Black Caps to mull over their quickfire Champions Trophy exit.
It wasn't quite tears on the streets like a certain World Cup rugby quarterfinal six years ago. There was more a sense of bemusement they'd fallen just short after the Cardiff rain, then Australia, threatened to smooth their ride into a fifth consecutive world 50-over semi-final.
Neither came to the party. The Sunday gloom cleared enough to allow a 24-over game against England which the hosts won by 10 runs. Then Australia's Anzac spirit deserted them as they fell 20 short of Sri Lanka, leaving the trans-Tasman neighbours who contested the 2009 final out on their ears.
Hopes weren't high that Australia would upset Sri Lanka. The keen golfers hit the links whilst others in the New Zealand team avoided their televisions and went for an early dinner, resigned to their fate.
Coach Mike Hesson, laid up in bed with a nasty cold, said he followed every delivery on TV. When Australia chose to bowl first and then needed to rattle up 254 in 29.1 overs to steal an unlikely semi-final spot on net run rate, he knew their faint hopes were gone.
Missing the semi-finals and US$400,000 in prizemoney (the winner gets US$2 million, the runners-up US$1 million), was a further case for the prosecution on New Zealand's ability to handle big game pressure. The one-day international is their best format. They were one of the form teams going in, with a series victory in England to show for it. The cut-throat, blink-and-you've-missed it tournament is their favourite format.
They didn't deserve to make the semi-finals. They were one poor umpiring decision away from losing to Sri Lanka after an outstanding bowling performance, then butchered a gettable run chase against England. Rain or Australia would have been hollow saviours, only booking them a daunting semi against a rampant India.
The bowling was largely excellent, led by Mitchell McClenaghan and anchored by a hobbling Daniel Vettori. The fielding ranged from sublime from captain Brendon McCullum, and at times Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson, to downright embarrassing against England when four catches went down, three of them by Nathan McCullum who'd been one of their best.
The batting provided the familiar theme. On a tricky dry pitch where the ball stopped in the surface, New Zealand nearly blew it against Sri Lanka. Then instead of weathering the early storm against England pacemen James Anderson and Stuart Broad, openers Luke Ronchi and Martin Guptill got too hyped up with the ball moving. Wickets in hand and New Zealand would have cantered home, instead they were 48-4 with their three best batsmen Guptill, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum gone. The latter captained on instinct and was an impressive leader but needed to step up with the bat in that situation.
Williamson is a class act and his 67 off 54 balls nearly saved his team. Corey Anderson was unveiled and showed poise and skill to match his reputation. He could be the big-hitting all-rounder New Zealand have been waiting for since Chris Cairns.
Ronchi and his Wellington team-mate James Franklin were the head-scratchers; the former good enough to be there but out of place at the top of the order, and the latter disappointingly flat with bat and ball.
The challenge is there for youngsters Hamish Rutherford, Tom Latham and Colin Munro to challenge for batting spots in the ODI top-six, with opener and No 5 seemingly up for grabs.
The ODI team isn't suddenly a poor one, as evidenced by their series wins in South Africa and England. But the way they fluffed their lines with the pressure up a notch was a worry, less than two years out from the World Cup in their own backyard.
- The Dominion Post
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