Mohammed Shami
India’s Mohammed Shami celebrates after taking the wicket of New Zealand’s Matt Henry during the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamsala on October 22, 2023. Shami returned a haul of wickets as India won by five wickets to maintain their unbeaten streak in the tournament. Image Credit: AFP

The win over New Zealand in Dharamsala may be the turning point for India’s Cricket World Cup campaign. The Kiwis have been a bogey for India, who lost eight of the nine meetings in ICC events since 1992. After trailing 3-5 in head-to-head World Cup clashes, India pulled closer with Sunday’s (October 22) win, but the tight contest was ample evidence that New Zealand would be a major hurdle in the knockout phase.

India’s fifth win in the tournament helped preserve the unbeaten record, making them favourites to make the semifinals; they need only two more wins to confirm a slot. Rohit Sharma’s side still have to face a resurgent South Africa and a wounded England, who must win all games to keep their slim hopes alive. The other matches are against Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.

Back to the New Zealand game: Why was a win important? To know that we have to pedal back in history.

New Zealand were always good in One-Day Internationals despite a mediocre Test record. For a country with a sparse population, they never had a large talent pool. Despite that, they have produced world-class players like Bert Sutcliffe, Glen Turner, John Reid, Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, and others.

Why New Zealand are good at ODIs

ODI cricket suited New Zealand since the format focused on restricting rivals from scoring rather than bowling them out. And mammoth totals weren’t required so long as the bowlers prevented opponents from overhauling the scores. It’s little wonder they have played three World Cup finals since 2015 (including the 2021 Twenty20 World Cup in the UAE).

In 2019, New Zealand ran England close and were unfortunate to lose the 2019 World Cup final — a tournament where India were one of the favourites and justified their billing with fine victories. New Zealand, who had scraped through to the knockout phase on the strength of a better run rate, stunned the in-form India in the semifinal.

Barely had the wounds of that unexpected loss healed, Kane Williamson steered New Zealand to victory over India in the 2021 World Test Championship final at Rose Bowl, Southampton — a win that proclaimed that the Kiwis no longer mere ODI wonders. Virat Kohli and Williamson may be friends, but Indian cricket supporters haven’t forgotten the pain of the double whammy.

Perhaps New Zealand’s best attribute is their ability to fly under the radar. Without superstars, they attract little attention even when winning games. Although they are runner-up, the Kiwis are not among the favourites this year when they flew into India for the World Cup. But cricket buffs and pundits took notice of their rout of champions England in the tournament opener, followed by some creditable wins. They are yet to play heavyweights Pakistan, Australia and South Africa.

Ahead of Sunday’s clash, India were no doubt worried about New Zealand’s ability to spring a surprise, largely due to their previous losses. A compact side, the Kiwis always performed above expectations, and their tigrish fielding has always been a feature of their wins. India got a taste of that with Suryakumar Yadav’s runout by the sheer athleticism of Mitchell Santner.

Much before that, Daryll Mitchell (130) and Rachin Ravindra (75) had placed them on the path to a winning score. That didn’t materialise after Mohammed Shami inspired an Indian fightback with a five-wicket haul that pegged the Kiwis to 273. And chase maestro Kohli (95) ensured an Indian win after captain Sharma (46) set the early pace.

It wasn’t an easy win, but India will take plenty of positives from it. Most importantly, they realised Shami’s value: his incisive bowling is worth more than the wickets and runs Shardul Thakur can muster. Although not a like-for-like replacement, Shami is more valuable to India as he’s a potent threat and can handle the slog overs, which is vital since Mohammad Siraj hasn’t been consistent.

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Another redeeming feature was India’s ability to weather the Kiwi batting storm with a five-man attack. With no part-time bowlers, Sharma was unperturbed even when Ravindra and Mitchell targeted his key bowler Kuldeep Yadav. That was indeed a stern examination for the bowlers.

The four-wicket win also tested the late middle-order batters, and Ravindra Jadeja’s form was encouraging. The previous games were won so handsomely that only the top five batters were called to action. Today’s game helped soothe Indian nerves and engendered the belief that their batting has enough steel for tougher battles.

Bring on England and South Africa.