For New Zealand, the countdown is very much on to Friday’s huge clash with Australia at the Cricket World Cup and a chance to finally step out from the long shadow cast by their dominant neighbor. The tournament co-hosts have both made positive starts to the competition and look set to breeze through to the quarterfinals regardless of the result in the Pool A meeting. But the outcome could have more far-reaching consequences.
Australia entered the tournament as the No. 1 ranked side in one-day internationals by the International Cricket Council (ICC), and as four-time winners of the World Cup. New Zealand, meanwhile, have long been the dark horses of World Cups, a side considered to have the potential to ruffle feathers but not walk away with the silverware. Their six semifinal appearances in World Cups, the furthest they have gone, bear out this reputation. Yet this time there is a sense that it may be different. New Zealand, on home soil, appear to have the quality to go toe-to-toe with any team, including Australia.
“They're our neighbors from across the ditch,” New Zealand all-rounder Corey Anderson said, reports the New Zealand Herald. “They don't have guys who come out of the back of the hand, anything like that. We just have to go about our work and stick by our blueprint.”
New Zealand’s start to the competition has only raised expectations further. Having comfortably seen off Sri Lanka and Scotland, New Zealand obliterated England in an eyebrow-raising eight-wicket win last Friday. Tim Southee took a World Cup record equaling seven-wicket haul to help dismiss England for just 123, while captain Brendon McCollum led the way with the bat. But New Zealand have enjoyed positive contributions from throughout their lineup.
Australia opened up with a comfortable victory over England, but have had their momentum stalled by bad weather that led their match against Bangladesh to be called off on Saturday, giving them just a single point. Australia opener Aaron Finch does not believe the long layoff provides a concern, but insists that the weight of expectation will be on the home side at Auckland’s Eden Park -- a converted rugby stadium.
“I think all the pressure is going to be on New Zealand the way that they've been playing and here in New Zealand as well, but we're excited about the challenge,” he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The layoff has given Australia captain Michael Clarke extra time to recuperate on his return from hamstring surgery two months ago. Despite Clarke having appeared in a warm-up game ahead of the World Cup, George Bailey took his place and the captaincy against England, with Clarke slated to return against Bangladesh. But there has been plenty of speculation about Clarke’s position in the team and whether they are in fact better off without him. Preparations to take on New Zealand have been hit by comments from Australia spin legend, and a good friend of Clarke, Shane Warne, suggesting there was a rift between Clarke and Australia coach Darren Lehmann.
Australia lead the way 6-2 in World Cup matches between the sides. Although they have surprisingly not met in ODIs since the last World Cup, when Australia triumphed by seven wickets in the group phase.
Prediction: Australia have a hugely talented squad and looked impressive in their opening win. Yet their extended layoff combined with suggestions that all is not well in the camp means they may not be at their best on Saturday. If New Zealand can continue to handle the pressure on their shoulders then they could make a major statement of their intent and pick up a huge victory.
Match time: Saturday, 2 p.m. local time. Friday, 8 p.m. EST.