Champions Trophy preview: Weakened Australia vs plucky New Zealand
New Zealand play the part of perpetual underdog to perfection. Every time they get into a big event, they talk themselves down, are almost self-deprecatory, and then end up punching well above their weight.
So many teams have changed their uniforms so dramatically that at first glance you can't tell who is playing whom. With one unit, though, the kit is still the same, but the team is unrecognisable. Australia, for so long, have dominated the world of 50-over cricket, especially multi-team International Cricket Council events, that they came into each event as default favourite. Conditions didn't seem to matter, the draw of groups was never really taken too seriously and each match was a stepping stone to the final.
Never have the tables been turned so comprehensively on a team. Ahead of the match against Trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand on Wednesday (June 12), Australia are looking at a situation where one slip up could spell an early exit. Against England, Australia looked rudderless in the absence of Michael Clarke, who had been ruled out of the New Zealand match as well. "Michael is continuing to have intensive treatment in London and, whilst he is making good progress, he has not improved sufficiently enough to play the game against New Zealand on Wednesday," said Alex Kontouris, who is overseeing Clarke's treatment for a longstanding back problem. "We will continue to monitor his progress and determine his availability for next week's final group game against Sri Lanka."
While George Bailey, who is Australia's regular leader in Twenty20 cricket, has all the makings of a solid cricketer, he doesn't yet inspire fear in the opposition. James Faulkner, the other bright spot of the loss, is desperately inexperienced and, although skillful, has a long way to go before he becomes a world beater.
At the top of the order, Australia are heavily dependent on Shane Watson and David Warner to fire, preferably in unison, but it's hard to remember when last that happened. In the past, teams that came across Australia were fearful of being made to look bad, not merely lose. Now, Australia come into matches in the middle of a rebuilding phase where the roadmap to the future isn't exactly clear.
New Zealand play the part of perpetual underdog to perfection. Every time they get into a big event, they talk themselves down, are almost self-deprecatory, and then end up punching well above their weight. In this first game of this tournament, against Sri Lanka, there was no shortage of action in a low-scoring thriller. Towards the end of a nerve-jangling chase, when every run could change the direction of the game, New Zealand made the most of the slices of luck that came their way. To their credit, though, they never did lose hope, even when Lasith Malinga was firing laser-guided yorkers into the toes of tailenders who had to first get out of harm's way and then protect their wickets.
The return of Daniel Vettori, who last regularly played One-Day Internationals back in 2011, makes a significant difference to New Zealand's mental make-up. Vettori brings obvious strengths to the table in being able to bowl in a manner that will allow his captain to control the tempo of the game. But, more than that, Vettori's presence in the dressing-room gives Brendon McCullum a calm mind to bounce ideas off. While Vettori is not the kind to go out of his way to try and put his point across, he is certainly open to sharing the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated over the years.
New Zealand know that the pressure is squarely on Australia at the moment. With one team eyeing a place in the final four, and the other desperate to stay in the competition, expect a scrap.