Australia and New Zealand renew their cricket rivalry on Saturday in a match that is likely to decide who tops Pool A, and could yet act as a chance to land a psychological blow ahead of a possible rematch in the 2015 World Cup final. The two co-hosts have impressed so far and, regardless of what happens at Eden Park this weekend, look likely to take the top two spots in a group where England and Sri Lanka have already faltered. That would mean being kept apart until the final, should they both make it.
For New Zealand the contest appears to carry particular significance. Long cast in the role of overshadowed neighbors, losing six of their eight matches to Australia in World Cups, New Zealand have reached the last four of one-day cricket’s showpiece event on six occasions but never gone further. But this time, with a talented all-round squad and with the advantage of playing at home, there is a growing sense that they are far more than merely dark horses, and a real contender to lift the trophy next month.
Since the competition got underway, they have only furthered that impression. Wins over Sri Lanka and Scotland were followed by an eight-wicket destruction of England, when Tim Southee took a World Cup record-equaling seven wickets to dismiss their opponents for just 123. But it is the clash against Australia, with whom they have had a long and sometimes controversial rivalry, that many in both countries have been eagerly anticipating for some time. Yet veteran spinner New Zealand Daniel Vettori has played down the rivalry, and certainly sees no reason to alter their preparations.
“It’s been a consistent casual buildup, I think that’s worked pretty well for us, I think the guys are enjoying it,” he told reporters this week. “We look forward to Saturday rather than fearing it.
"[The rivalry is] a little bit overstated. I think in my 18 years of playing, I can't even remember being sledged by an Australian team. I think the way it's portrayed is not quite right and I think the guys that are going into battle will look forward to it. I think it's more about the physical contest, that's the thing guys get up for and get excited about.”
Australia’s preparations have not been as smooth as they would have liked. After opening with a win over England, the side ranked No. 1 in the world in one-day internationals had their match against Bangladesh abandoned because of bad weather. That left them with just a single point from the fixture and even more motivation to get a win over their neighbors. There will be added scrutiny on Australia, too, due to the return of their captain. Michael Clarke was expected to replace George Bailey in the lineup against Bangladesh, two months after undergoing surgery on his hamstring, but will now get little chance to ease his way back in what is sure to be a fiercely contested matchup.
However, Australia appear more focused on the opposition captain. Brendon McCullum has top-scored for New Zealand so far in this World Cup and Australia appear in no doubt that it is he who presents the biggest threat to their chances of coming away with a win. Most notably, brash-talking opening batsman David Warner has said he believes the pressure of Australia’s bowling can cause McCullum a “brain explosion.”
Bowler Josh Hazlewood’s comments were more circumspect, but he still made it clear that Australia are well aware of McCullum’s talents.
“We’ve obviously seen him do his work for New Zealand and in the IPL,” he said. “A lot of the guys have played with him and against him. He’s obviously a dangerous player, and he goes about his business a bit different to a lot of other opening batters. I mean bowling to [Australian openers] Finchy [Aaron Finch] and Warner, I think there’s no better practice than bowling to those two, they’re pretty similar players to McCullum.”
Match time: Saturday, 2 p.m. local time. Friday, 8 p.m. EST.
TV channel: DISH Network, Mediacom and Time Warner Cable subscribers can watch the match via pay per view. More info here.