World T20: In battle of brands, it’s New Zealand’s flexibility against England’s fearlessness

New Zealand play without fear? Are England players expressing themselves? Ultimately it’s about playing very smartcricket, writes Osman Samiuddin.

NEW DELHI // Lament briefly this age of cricket in which the tiresome idea that teams play – or should aspire to play – a certain brand of cricket has become ubiquitous.

There is no more vacuous word in the English language than brand and yet it is one that requires protection, enhancement or emulation.

Australia's brand of cricket is distinct, and foremost. New Zealand have one, which looks and feels like Australia's, except it is politer and more caring: a cuddlier version.

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England's brand of cricket is not dissimilar, though perhaps it is right now perched uncertainly between Australia's and New Zealand's. India and South Africa have brands, too, though beyond wanting to be like Australia's it is not clear how it will be distinct.

Suddenly all cricket is seen through the prism of a brand. What is yours? Do you have one? If you do not, as, say Sri Lanka and Pakistan do not, or have not yet articulated, then you are nowhere.

The logical endpoint of such aspiration is that one day we will all be wearing – sorry, playing – the same brand. Which, of course, can and should never happen.

The temptation, then, ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final clash between New Zealand and England in Delhi is to look at it as a battle of brands, the original up against an imitator.

It was, after all, New Zealand’s brand that spurred England into their own white-ball evolution, which began last year in their summer clashes in England.

New Zealand love talking about their brand and yet, at this tournament, they themselves have shown up the vacuousness of such talk. In each match, they have given in to the conditions they have found themselves in, to their opponents and the surfaces.

Sure, call it fearless cricket if you want, or cricket in which you express yourself – these are the guiding philosophies of these brands – but what they have really done is just play very, very smart cricket.

Each time, they have sussed out the surface and been flexible in their selections, and it helps that they have such variety in their squad so as to mould themselves into whatever the situation requires them to be.

They have had to, given that Delhi will be the fifth different venue they play on, England, by contrast, have played only in Mumbai and Delhi.

“We are simply trying to pick horses for courses, our best side for the given conditions against the given opposition at that point of time,” Kane Williamson said. “That certainly won’t change.”

Meanwhile, the thing England might have learnt about evolution is that it never stops. Adhering to the brand, that fearlessness, is fine but without the dexterity and pragmatism needed to adapt, it will mean nothing.

New Zealand will move at them from all kinds of angles and throw many feints; they may, finally play one of Tim Southee or Trent Boult, they may retain Nathan McCullum given England’s left-handers.

England have been happy to circulate their middle order around, depending on the circumstances, and have been successful with it. But it still feels as if the game might hinge on how the bowling adapts.

Ben Stokes, as he proved again with his last over against Sri Lanka, is the kind of roving wild card that adds to any side. But having just one bowler concede, on average, less than eight runs an over through the group stages suggests that fearlessness is not a quality easily ascribable to bowling.

Eoin Morgan, the England captain, thinks it is getting there though. Their performances in a 2-0 series loss to South Africa earlier this year, he said, was an indication.

“Coming out of South Africa, our bowlers were brilliant but we didn’t give them a lot to play with,” he said. “They came up with different ways and ideas of stopping people scoring and taking wickets. That is something we have tried to encourage.

“Tomorrow if the wicket is as good as it looks we are going to have to come up with different ideas and different skills of stopping New Zealand from scoring runs. That experience alone should hold us in good stead.”

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