The Kane Williamson-led New Zealand side has had a rugged road leading up to the semi-finals of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. While they started the tournament on a brilliant note with three back-to-back wins against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, their campaign got slightly derailed after the washout against India, with three of their last five matches—against Pakistan, Australia and England—resulting in losses. Thanks to their positive NRR of +0.175 compared to Pakistan’s -0.430, they find themselves in the knockout stage of the tournament, despite finishing on the same number of points as Pakistan (11).
On the eve of New Zealand’s semi-final tie against India at Old Trafford in Manchester, former New Zealand fast bowler Ian Butler, who played eight Tests, twenty-six ODIs and nineteen T20Is between 2002 and 2013, spoke exclusively to cricfit.com correspondent Ritam Basu about his country’s chances against the number-one-ranked ODI side in the world, the New Zealand seamers’ impressive performance at this World Cup, and the need to wrap Lockie Ferguson up in cotton wool, who, he believes, will be a potent match-winner for the Black Caps in limited-overs cricket going forward.
Q: To begin with, let me share an interesting stat with you. Out of the seven semi-finals that New Zealand have played prior to this edition of the World Cup, they have won just one—the 2015 semi-final against South Africa at Eden Park, Auckland. What according to you are New Zealand’s chances against India tomorrow?
Butler: India are, without a doubt, one of the favorites in the competition. Past semi-final stats are irrelevant to this current New Zealand team. Not many teams buy into history as majority of the time the players involved are different. This [New Zealand] side is quite experienced now, and with some senior players yet to hit their straps, there is no doubt that they can cause an upset. In reality, the Black Caps haven’t played near their ability in this tournament. If Guptill and Nicholls come out and play without fear and can get them off to a flyer, then the middle-order is very dangerous.
Q: What has been your overall assessment of the way the Black Caps have played in the tournament so far?
Butler: The seam bowlers have excelled clearly, and Williamson with the bat has been the only batsman to have really dominated. Neesham with both bat and ball has shown his growing class. Another strength is probably winning ugly; with the batting stats we have had it’s a miracle we have won so many games, but they have found a way as a team to get the job done.
As far as the weaknesses are concerned, the [inconsistency of the] top order has meant Williamson has been in early in almost every game, and the remainder of the batting stats aren’t pretty reading either. Spin hasn’t been a wicket taking option yet, but that has been consistent for all teams. [That] No spinner features among the top fifteen wicket takers is unbelievable really.
Q: Do you think that getting relatively easier draws in the first half of the tournament against teams like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and the wash-out against India proved a deciding factor for New Zealand in reaching the semis? Why do you think they lost their way in the latter half of the group stage?
Butler: I don’t think the draw played any part. I think they would have beaten those weaker teams at any stage of the tournament, but the one point for the washout [against India] has proved crucial. England and Australia were too good on their days; the Pakistan game is one they will look back on [where the decision at] the toss may have been an error, but it’s done now. They can only deal with what they have been dealt.
Q: The New Zealand seam bowlers have fared exceptionally well in the tournament, with Trent Bout, Lockie Ferguson, Matt Henry and James Neesham having picked up 53 wickets among them. What do you think should be their plan against the Indian top three batsmen, who have also been in brilliant form so far?
Butler: All-out attack! [New Zealand have] Nothing to lose here. If both Sharma and Kohli are out in the first ten overs, the Black Caps have a great chance. Boult’s ability to swing the ball back in early will have both batsmen cautious, but sometimes when batsmen are in such amazing form, his one that slides across them can tempt a big flashing drive. It seems Ferguson isn’t a fan of bowling with the new ball, but I’d like to see him on as early as possible. If Sharma and Kohli get set, then it’s an uphill battle.
Q: The weather forecast for tomorrow in Manchester says that there are chances of light showers and overcast conditions. How do you see New Zealand faring in those conditions?
Butler: Both teams would likely want to bat first. I can’t quite figure out why batting first has been so dominant at this World Cup, whereas over the past few years, chasing has proven to be the favoured option.
The match being played at Old Trafford isn’t likely to allow spin to play much of a part. Santner hasn’t played much of a role with the ball, but [Gary] Stead seems keen to stick with the tried combination, so I doubt if Sodhi would play ahead of him. Seamers will have to win one ball at a time. Execution to minimize damage to where the fields are set will really be the key.
Q: Which New Zealand seamer has impressed you the most in the tournament so far?
Butler: Ferguson, undoubtedly! His X-factor of pace and a skiddy short ball will be crucial if the Black Caps are to get the Indian middle order in early.
Q: What according to you should be New Zealand’s playing XI against India tomorrow? Do you see them making any changes to the side that played against England in their last league game?
Butler: I think Ferguson will come back in for Southee. Sodhi in for Henry would be the attacking option, but it doesn’t seem that will happen.
Q: You started your own career as a bowler who could clock the 140 kph plus mark regularly. Then a spate of injuries resulted in you having to cut down on your pace. With so much of cricket, including the franchise-based T20 competitions, being played around the world throughout the year, how do you think New Zealand Cricket can manage the workload of speedsters like Lockie Ferguson, who is going to be a vital member of the New Zealand team going forward?
Butler: Chris Donaldson (strength and conditioning coach of the national team) and NZC have been great at managing the bowlers over the past few years, and the ability to keep this crop of bowlers on the park has been great. I have heard talks of Ferguson playing Test cricket but I fear that would put too much stress on what is a rarity. He has consistently been the quickest bowler in the world since he has come into the side. Let him focus on becoming a brilliant ODI player who wins games for his country, but I also see that representing your country in Test cricket is a big lure.
Q: You have obviously seen James Neesham evolve as a cricketer since your Otago days. What do you have to say about his performance of late? How vital a player is he in New Zealand’s middle-order?
Butler: Since coming back against Sri Lanka earlier this year, he averages 50 with the bat (16 ODIs, 405 runs and 21 wickets) and 20 with the ball. Now those aren’t realistic stats to continue in the long term, but it has been great to see a player who fell out of love with the game, come back and play this way. If he comes in with a platform set, he is incredibly dangerous, particularly with his ability to hit seamers a long way.
Q: Do you think it would be fair to label this semi-final as a contest between India’s top order and New Zealand’s pace attack, and that whoever wins this contest is likely to win the game?
Butler: Both sides have strong bowling attacks. Bumrah and Shami have been outstanding as well. On what is likely to be a fresh wicket with 320 a bare minimum, I actually think the game would hinge on one contest: Sharma/Kohli v/s Williamson/Taylor. Whichever side has that pairing batting deepest into the innings, will set itself up for a win. Both sides have huge hitters to finish, India with Dhoni and Pandya, and the Black Caps with Neesham and de Grandhomme.
Q: How do you plan to celebrate if New Zealand go on to make the final of the World Cup for the second time in a row?
Butler: I guess that would be another late night! With the matches being broadcast here during the night, it would mean getting a sleep-in the day before. But I am most excited for this semi-final. There are some very experienced, calm-under-pressure sort of players in that team who will want to come out and be ‘Man of the Match’. It just takes someone to play the innings of his life or bowl a match turning spell, and the Black Caps can then give themselves a shot at going one better than 2015.