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A common refrain among commentators at the World T20, being played in India right now, has been that the Kiwis have read the conditions better than any other team.
Is it just the sheer brilliance of the cricket pundits in the Kiwi team management? Or do the Kiwis have more recent experience of Indian conditions than other teams? Or did the Kiwis send out spies to all the cricket venues before their team arrived?
Let’s first look at the familiarity issue.
The last time the Kiwis toured India was in 2012. First, that’s an eternity in this day and age when cricket is played 365 days a year.
Second, there are only a few players common between that team and this one – Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill, Tim Southee and Trent Boult. So while there is some domain knowledge in that group, the experience would be too dated to be of any particular use.
Where it does get interesting, however, is when you look at the IPL. Suddenly, the equation changes.
Corey Anderson, Boult, Adam Milne, Williamson and Mitchell McClenaghan are all regulars at the IPL. So was Guptill, until this year that is, when his continued struggle against spin on Indian pitches brought about the shock result in the IPL 2016 auction that left him unsold.
So in this group, you have some serious knowledge of Indian conditions, and some clues about their team selection and reading of conditions emerge. But it’s still not the full story.
Virtually the whole South African team has been playing in the IPL for years. That didn’t stop them being embarrassed in the shorter version in India recently.
When this reflection didn’t provide the answers, I started looking at what New Zealand have done right so far and tried to relate it to current sports (and general) management theory.
In the game against India, the team management dropped Southee and Boult (with a few hundred hours of combined recent experience of Indian conditions), who Richard Hadlee recently described as the finest new-ball pair in the country’s history. New Zealand played three spinners instead, including two virtual rookies, against a country with some of the finest players of spin in world cricket.
The result? They bowled out the much vaunted Indian batting line-up on a spinning track at home for 79. Three days later, on a different track that would not afford so much spin, but wasn’t going to help pace either, they replaced the most experienced spinner, Nathan McCullum, with McClenaghan, and asked him to bowl the 19th over against an in-form Australia. With 22 runs to get and two overs to get them in (not an insurmountable task in T20), McClenaghan conceded three runs and took two wickets.
And what led to this performance? It wasn’t only that McClenaghan bowled magnificently. It was also because early in the game, the captain Williamson, walked over to the dugout to discuss tactics with his most experienced bowlers (who were not playing the game). Between himself, Southee, Boult and McCullum, New Zealand decided that the wicket wasn’t a yorker-friendly one, so they would go with balls which were slightly short of length and bowl cutters instead. This was executed to perfection by McClenaghan.
The fog starts lifting here. So not only do the Kiwis do a lot of planning pre-game (something the Pakistani team for example cannot be accused of at the best of times), but they are not afraid to change winning combinations and choose horses for courses. More importantly, they work as a real team.
I cannot think of another team where the captain would walk up to his star players, who he has benched, and ask them for advice on what to do, based on their observations and experience. And then follow that advice.
For some sports theory, we need to go across to the NFL in the US. A study published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology, shows that in the NFL, it pays to be a team player – literally!
When college players go up for the NFL draft, positive press reports about players being a good team player in college, increases first-year salaries as much as $143,000 for linebackers and $105,000 for wide receivers. The reason? These players bring trust and cohesion to a team.
And herein lies the lesson. The Black Caps are not only planning well, they are playing as a real team. Who the 11 players on the field are, is almost irrelevant, for they are just there to execute a plan. It’s a broader think tank, made up of the most experienced team players, that is deciding the strategy.
And in a quick-fire volatile 20-over game, where fortunes can change by the minute, the ability to plan well, but also have available to you the best advice that money cannot buy, and a team committed to break the jinx and perhaps win their first ever World Cup in any format, is a potent combination indeed.
Keep your eyes on the Kiwis, for from here, this is their World Cup to lose.