VVS-Laxman

At the start of World T20 2016, my choice of semi-finalists was India, Australia, South Africa and West Indies. Two of these teams have made it to the last four, while Australia and South Africa have been upstaged in their respective groups by New Zealand and England, who will go head-to-head in the first semi-final at the Kotla. Live Cricket Scorecard: England v New Zealand, T20 World Cup 2016, 1st Semi-Final at Delhi

I have been very impressed with the brand of cricket New Zealand have played. Brendon McCullum had laid the benchmark with his attacking batting and imaginative captaincy, and while Kane Williamson has followed suit, he has not blindly aped the McCullum formula. Instead, he has been his own captain, leading the side with great flair without being afraid to take difficult calls if the conditions so demanded.

For instance, it would have taken a great deal of courage to leave out Trent Boult and Tim Southee, two of the most accomplished pace bowlers in the world. However, New Zealand read the conditions beautifully in the opening game against India in Nagpur where they played three spinners and in the next match against Australia in Dharamsala, assessing the fact that there would be no swing on offer, Williamson opted for Mitchell McClenaghan. McClenaghan is more hit-the-deck kind of bowler who can get the ball to grip, and he justified his selection by winning the Man of the Match award.

New Zealand’s game plan has been simple and clear. One of the criticisms of Martin Guptill was his inability to adapt to conditions in the subcontinent, but in this tournament he has been good. He has been fluently playing his strokes at the beginning of the innings while Williamson has been playing the role of the anchor without compromising on the strike rate.

There is great depth and firepower in the New Zealand batting order. Colin Munro and Corey Anderson are power-hitters, while Ross Taylor and Grant Elliott are experienced batsmen who can work the gaps as well as hit the big shots when the situation so demands. New Zealand are a well-rounded batting unit, and they have impressed in each of their four games. It is no coincidence that they are the only unbeaten team in the competition so far.

Their bowling has also been marshalled astutely by Williamson. Mitchell Santner has come on by leaps and bounds, and the manner in which he had Rohit Sharma and Steven Smith stumped in successive games is testament to his skills and his temperament. Rohit and Smith are among the finest players of the turning ball in world cricket. To beat them in the air, draw them out and get the ball to break away from them was a fabulous achievement for a young spinner.

Ish Sodhi is a much-improved leg-spinner who, like leg-spinners of some quality, has been among the wickets consistently, but as much as his wicket-taking contributions, his economy has also been extraordinary. Nathan McCullum is an experienced hand in the limited-overs game, while in Adam Milne, Anderson, McClenaghan and Elliott, New Zealand have a more than competent fast-bowling group.

I can also state without any hesitation that New Zealand have clearly been the best fielding team in the competition. They have put body and limb on the line, held some stunning catches and proved once again that especially in T20 cricket, fielding is as vital a discipline as batting and bowling are.

I must say England have taken me by surprise. In contrast to New Zealand who have always been serious contenders for at least a spot in the semi-final of limited-overs world events, England have been underachievers. Their lowest point perhaps came in the 50-over World Cup in Australia when they failed to make it to the quarter-final, but that set in motion a chain of events which has culminated in them being a serious force in the shorter formats too.

Much of their aggressive and successful brand of cricket can be traced to the appointment of Andrew Strauss as Director of Cricket, appointment of Trevor Bayliss as the coach and the identification of young batsmen who are specialists in the shorter versions. A majority of England’s batsmen have little or no experience of Indian conditions, so the manner in which they have adapted to the pitches has been exemplary.

Joe Root is obviously the lynchpin of the batting group. He is one of the finest batsmen in the world, alongside Virat Kohli and Smith and AB de Villiers, and the manner in which he has held England together has been a treat to watch. He is one of those batsmen who can switch gears without any fuss. He can be both orthodox and innovative, and often frustratingly difficult to set a field to. Further down the order, Jos Buttler is a destructive batsman and one of the best finishers in the game as he again showcased in the victory over Sri Lanka.

Having said that, I am of the opinion that England’s bowling is very predictable and their weak link, especially in the death overs, with the exception of Chris Jordan. If Jordan does not get it right and does not pick up wickets with his yorkers and change of pace, there is every chance England’s bowlers will struggle, which has been in evidence at various stages of the tournament. For a long time, England’s strength was their bowling with the batting somewhat of a grey area. The roles have reversed now, and for that reason as much as anything else, I believe New Zealand start the first semi-final as favourites.

Of course, T20 has no respect for form or reputation. It all boils down to those three hours on the field, and if New Zealand are even slightly off the boil, England will punish them. As World T20 2016 is into the final phase, we could not have had a better match-up to get the knockouts going.

(VVS Laxman, CricketCountry’s Chief Cricket Mentor, remains one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history. He was part of the iconic Indian middle-order for over a decade and a half and played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs. He tweets at @vvslaxman281)