Those Wellingtonians planning a post-work trip to the cricket to start their weekend were left disappointed, as only the swiftest nine-to-fiver could have made it to the ground in time to see any pre-tea action.
For all England’s shortcomings with the bat and ball, New Zealand was an utter treat. The Cake Tin – the stands a sea of the black of the home side, the grey of its 1992 counterparts (a fine vintage who look likely to be bettered this time round), and the orange of its ball-catching sponsors, Tui – was a cauldron drenched in perfect sunlight. From on high in the stands, behind the bowler’s arm, to one side the view is of velvety conifer covered hills dotted with white houses that surely boast the most spectacular of views; on the other a cruise ship sat in the harbour. The Windy City felt like the Caribbean.
And the local boys played with the aggression, flair and brutality of Caribbean sides of yore, too. New Zealand’s cricketers aren’t natural favourites; that’s the domain of their rugby players. Their wonderful recent form has seen a rise in expectation, and this was the day the side proved it is the real deal.
Southee was Man of the Match, and rightly so. His 7 for 33 were the best bowling figures in ODIs by a man from his country and the third best in World Cups. That he did it on a pitch that looked set for runs and as the only man who extracted any real swing showed what a skilled operator he has become. The third ball of his third over, was angled in and then it swung away to beat Ian Bell’s flailing bat and take the top of offstump. Moeen Ali was the next to go after flailing three consecutive Gowerian boundaries, and while the ball that downed him would have done for many finer players, Southee’s strategy and execution was a sight to behold. He bounced Ali before firing in a full, deviating one at the top of off. Expecting short stuff, Moeen stayed back and was castled. One-two. Textbook.
England’s next two wickets fell much in the manner they’d be expected to. Gary Ballance hung around before finding short cover off Trent Boult. Eoin Morgan nudged and nurdled around for nearly an hour and 13 overs. Eventually he found Adam Milne – who took a fine catch – at long-off off the bowling of Daniel Vettori. There are those who’ll call it unlucky; it was nothing of the sort.
From there, it was a procession, with Southee at the wheel. Is there any bowler in the world game currently using the crease better? Is there anyone you’d back to hit the top of off with greater consistency? Two balls into James Taylor’s stay, and his offstump was leaning back, again the victim of a full jaffer. Joe Buttler was off soon, nibbling outside off and feeding a stuffed cordon. The tail soon followed, with only Joe Root – last man out slogging – playing with any kind of authority.
Southee was glorious, but Brendon McCullum was the architect and final executioner. In the field he attacked relentlessly; three slips at the start, four by the end and displaying a remarkable ability to scent blood. When Vettori got Morgan and the fourth wicket fell, he tossed the ball back to Southee; when Stuart Broad came to the crease, Southee was joined by his partner in crime Boult. Ian Smith, a man who has seen enough of him, said on commentary that “he’d never seen McCullum so attacking”, but while he is tactically superb, his personal fielding and the manner in which he leads by example is equally special. Stalking at cover or mid-off, this scribe genuinely lost count of the number of runs he saved with flying dives. It exceeded 15, certainly.
Then came his chase, as clinical and clean as is possible. This was what New Zealand tried to do to Scotland’s 142 on Tuesday; this time it worked. With the fastest World Cup fifty, with eight boundaries and seven sixes to every corner of the ground imaginable, McCullum batted like a man with a 6pm dinner reservation. Broad’s first over cost 18 and Finn’s two went for 49. McCullum was eventually bowled by a Chris Woakes full toss for 77, and after a break for tea with New Zealand 12 away, Woakes also cleaned up Martin Guptill to delay the inevitable further. McCullum left the field to the level of applause normally reserved only for Richie McCaw and Dan Carter in this country. To a man, the stadium stood and applauded.