Shortly after the World Cup schedule was announced, New Zealand dialled up former skipper Stephen Fleming to come on board as part of the support staff for a brief period. For a team known to maximise its resources on the field, behind the scenes they are masters of paying attention to even the minutest details that have the potential to make a big difference. The call to Fleming was one such move, as they needed his knowledge of Indian conditions, especially those in Chennai where he spends a good two months every year during the IPL with the Super Kings.
Having started their campaign with two wins out of two, including the big one against defending champions England, New Zealand are now in the Tamil Nadu capital. In terms of conditions, it is the polar opposite to what they encounter back home, where playing even a sole spinner is often considered a luxury. But, here they are in Chennai to face Bangladesh and Afghanistan in back-to-back fixtures in conditions where spinners are likely to call the shots.
Against two teams whose biggest strength is their spinners, these two matches can well turn out to be a banana skin for New Zealand. Losing even one of the two before they face India, Australia, South Africa and Pakistan could end up proving costly at the business end of the league phase.
— BLACKCAPS (@BLACKCAPS) October 11, 2023
But all said and done, it is New Zealand who look more rounded and better prepared for these conditions. Over the past 12 months when they toured Pakistan multiple times and India and Bangladesh once each, they used the trips to give exposure to Will Young, Rachin Ravindra and Mark Chapman, who were outsiders back then to make the World Cup cut. But injuries and lack of form for Finn Allen and Michael Bracewell meant they got the openings.
With Young, Daryl Mitchell and Glenn Phillips not having much experience of Indian conditions, New Zealand knew their homework had to be spot on.
It is the reason they were not willing to take any chances and preferred having Fleming on board to go with Saqlain Mushtaq in England as support staff. And for the World Cup, they have also included James Foster, who has been working with Kolkata Knight Riders, as part of their support staff and knows the players. If the likes of Bangladesh and Afghanistan have roped in local expertise (S Sriram and Ajay Jadeja) as consultants, the Black Caps have been a tad different, bringing in familiar faces who the players can open up to and feel comfortable with from the word go.
Fleming, who was known to be a master tactician even during his playing days, has evolved into a highly-sought-after coach and conditions in Chennai are as familiar to him as those in Auckland or Wellington. For over a decade, he has been MS Dhoni’s trusted ally when it comes to plotting a trial by spin at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. And over the years, the Chepauk has sort of become a second home for many New Zealand cricketers. From Scott Styris, Jacob Oram and Brendon McCullum to Tim Southee, Mitchell Santner, Matt Henry and Devon Conway among the current lot, they have seamlessly adjusted to the conditions, acing the role assigned to them.
One of Fleming’s biggest traits with the Super Kings has been his ability to make the most out of these utility players, who are capable of contributing with bat and ball. And it seems only natural that the Black Caps, who have an army of such players, have relied extensively on Fleming.
And it is these players that the Black Caps are banking as they prepare to take on Bangladesh on Friday. New Zealand’s bowling coach Shane Jurgensen revealed how far their players tapped into Fleming about the conditions.
“We’ve known these games are coming up in advance. No doubt Gary (Stead, head coach) and some of the senior players did tap on him about the conditions here. He is a great man to fall back on and has the experience of knowing these conditions through the IPL. For us, the advantage is that we have many players who have played in the IPL and for CSK. We had some good experiences playing in the subcontinent leading into the tournament. So I think we have given ourselves every opportunity to prepare the best we can,” Jurgensen said.
Before the last IPL, Conway – who had a breakthrough season with the CSK – also relied on inputs from former New Zealand A and Northern Districts coach Sriram Krishnamurthy, who has now shifted base to Chennai. For a batsman who grew up learning the game in South Africa before moving to Wellington, Conway used the sweep shot and his unconventional style to pick pockets that other batsmen don’t generally explore, helping him amass 672 runs.
And against Bangladesh, who rely heavily on spinners, ready to test them in conditions that are a lot similar to what they encounter on a regular basis in Mirpur, New Zealand look ready for a slugfest. Apart from Conway, in Ravindra, Tom Latham and captain Kane Williamson, who is returning to the side after missing the first two matches, New Zealand have the sort of ideal, nimble-footed batsmen who can nullify their tweakers. And in Mitchell, Phillips, Chapman, Santner and Jimmy Neesham, they also have the sort of all-rounders who fit into the mould perfectly and provide the sort of balance that can help them lay their hands on the World Cup. Batting depth all the way till No.9 and eight bowling options in these conditions are straight out of the Fleming and Super Kings manual, one which Black Caps believe would be a winning formula.