Sachin Tendulkar may have unwittingly provided New Zealand with extra motivation to cause a huge upset in Tuesday’s World Cup semi-final against India when he wished MS Dhoni happy birthday and “all the very best for the next two games”.
The implication of the retired batting great’s remarks was that India wicketkeeper Dhoni, who turned 38 on Sunday, and his team-mates already have one foot in the July 14 final at Lord’s against England or Australia.
India, whose group match against 2015 runners-up New Zealand was washed out, have suffered just one defeat at this World Cup so far, against England, and ended on top of the 10-team group stage, making them strong favourites to beat the Black Caps.
Opener Rohit Sharma became the first batsman to score five centuries in a single World Cup when he made 103 in a seven-wicket win over Sri Lanka at Headingley on Saturday, while fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah has been the spearhead of a well-balanced bowling attack.
Meanwhile, India captain Virat Kohli is renowned for relishing the big occasion.
His side appear to have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, with Bumrah saying: “It’s a good headache to have when everyone’s performing and everyone’s in good nick and that’s something you love to have going into a crucial game like next week’s semi-final.”
But if New Zealand, whose attack is set to feature experienced left-arm quick Trent Boult and fit-again fast bowler Lockie Ferguson — can find a way through India’s top three, they could expose a lengthy tail.
The Black Caps, who only qualified for the semi-finals in fourth place on the basis of net run-rate, have lost their last three games — against Pakistan, holders Australia and England.
They now have the additional incentive of proving to Tendulkar that his prediction of an India appearance in the final was premature.
“People aren’t expecting us to win and from my point of view I think that’s a good place to be in,” New Zealand coach Gary Stead told reporters at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Batting first has become an increasingly successful tactic at the World Cup in general and at Old Trafford in particular, where it’s been part of the winning strategy featured in all five previous games on the ground.
– ‘Pressure does funny things’ –
“India are also a fantastic chasing team as well,” said Stead.
“But when you get to this stage of the tournament, sometimes pressure can do funny things on people as well. If we can apply enough pressure, then you never know what might happen.”
But in order for that to happen Stead’s side will have to be competitive with the bat.
New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, has been in fine form, making match-winning hundreds against South Africa and the West Indies.
But the rest of the top order have had a largely forgettable World Cup, with the Black Caps losing 13 wickets in the powerplay at just 23.38 each –- the worst record in the competition.
Williamson’s 481 tournament runs represent nearly 29 percent of New Zealand’s total at this World Cup.
“Kane has stood up brilliantly for us,” said Stead. “I don’t think we’ll be doing anything drastic, we just know we have to be better in that area than what we have been so far.”
India, set to be roared on by thousands of loyal fans may have the look of cricket thoroughbreds, but Ferguson made it clear the Black Caps had no intention of just making up the numbers.
“As a team we definitely want to be the scrappers and guys that scrap for wins and not always do we win pretty,” he said.
As for playing in front of a partisan audience, Stead said: “I’m guessing there are not going to be a lot of English people in the crowd and there will be a lot of Indians!
“Once you are out there the noise is just noise.”