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New Zealand v England: A rivalry for the romantics

by Roshan Gede 5 minute read

Roshan Gede on how contests between New Zealand and England feel different to anything else out there.

A lot has been said about that spellbinding evening at Lord’s on July 14, and we thought we would never see something similar for a lifetime. But on Sunday, November 10, we saw it, felt it and lived it all over again. Okay, the stakes weren’t as high, but another super-over thriller between these two sides? Yes, please.

It was a different format, the shortest one, and the game was further shortened to 11 overs a side due to rain interruptions. The venue was different, too: rotate the Lord’s outfield sideways and bring those boundaries in a bit closer; you’ll get Eden Park – a minefield for bowlers and paradise for big-hitting batsmen. The protagonists were different, too. There was no Ben Stokes, no Jos Buttler, no Jofra Archer. Kane Williamson was there, watching it all from beyond the boundary. But all our game needed was two teams – one dressed in black, the other in red – to produce another thrilling finish in a clash that mattered, with the series on the line.

As it turned out, both teams finished on 146 after 11 overs, and once again, England emerged victorious – this time by 11 runs to take the series 3-2.

A new rivalry has emerged, but it all feels a bit different to an Ashes battle or an India-Pakistan clash. It doesn’t have a dramatic historical reference point like the Oval Test of 1882, neither is it surrounded by vibrant support and intense fanaticism as is the case when the two subcontinental sides meet.

Matches between England and New Zealand in recent years have focussed on skill and spirit – sledging has been an absent sight. These two teams have both felt compelled to acknowledge the brilliance of the other, and the quality of cricket has not suffered at all. It feels, dare I say, a tad bit romantic.

It all began in 2015, when England, after being knocked out early from the World Cup, hosted New Zealand for five ODIs, two Tests and a T20I. Their World Cup campaign was defined by a humiliating loss to New Zealand in Wellington, where they were bundled out for a mere 123, and the Kiwis chased it down with over 37 overs to spare. England’s resurrection began against the same opponents and under the same leader, Eoin Morgan, but this time with a different approach and new-found intent.

An ODI series which saw 3,151 runs being scored across five games – the most in a five-match bilateral affair – went right to the penultimate over of the last game, and saw England take victory. The hosts were suddenly enthralling to watch, and their style gracefully mimicked that of Brendon McCullum’s side: go big or go home with the bat.

Prior to the start of this year’s World Cup, Morgan opened up on the influence of McCullum, telling BBC Sport: “If you look at his [McCullum’s] body language at any stage of any game, it’s extremely positive.

“He’s always on the front foot and leading from the front regardless of the scoreboard or the situation of the game. I like to pick his brain. As a pure leader, he’s exceptional. New Zealand cricket had embodied playing fun cricket under McCullum. Playing against them, we were a little bit jealous.”

And ahead of that final, Morgan added: “We are close mates. He’s taught me a lot about leadership. He proved you can get to the highest level by being yourselves.”

Then, of course, it all unfolded at Lord’s. No one would have blamed New Zealand for losing their rag; the boundary count rule that cost them has since been put in the bin by the ICC. But their leader is Williamson, a model of grace. Even amidst devastation he was able to speak with a sense of calm. England were “deserved winners” and he hailed a “great spectacle” of a match. Both sides were part of something bigger, even if the Black Caps returned home without the trophy.

When Ben Stokes was comically nominated for the New Zealander of the Year award this year, he launched into a glowing tribute of Williamson: “He should be revered as a Kiwi legend,” he said. “He led his team in this World Cup with distinction and honour.

“He was the player of the tournament and an inspirational leader of men. He shows humility and empathy to every situation and is an all-round good bloke.

“He typifies what it is to be a New Zealander. He would be a worthy recipient of this accolade. New Zealand, fully support him. He deserves it and gets my vote.”

When Chris Jordan found the boundary on Sunday to send the match into a super over, Jimmy Neesham, the bowler, had a wry chuckle. This from the man who had swung Archer for six in the first super over. The man who had been close to retirement but fought back to not lose a World Cup final – but not win it either. Inside there must have been some pain. But Neesham is a neutral’s favourite, close to an open book off the field and a brilliant cricketer on it.

Rivalries often tend to get bigger than the game itself, and sometimes you can’t help but enjoy a few vocal exchanges between men out in the middle, both desperate to get ahead of one another. But one can’t help but marvel at the heart of recent England-New Zealand contests.

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