New Zealand’s decade of excellence unravels in a hurry

West Indies

It takes at least 33 hours to fly from Port of Spain to Auckland. At least when New Zealand make the long journey home from the T20 World Cup next week, they will have plenty of time for reflection.

They have had a bizarre few weeks. Players and support staff first arrived in the Caribbean in late May but it was not until last Friday that they actually made it onto the pitch. The ICC’s proposed dates for warm-up fixtures would have left them short on numbers due to late post-IPL arrivals, and their proposed alternatives were then turned down.

Now, after 75.2 overs of cricket, they are on the brink of elimination: unless Papua New Guinea secure their first-ever T20 World Cup win by beating Afghanistan on Thursday night, New Zealand’s final two fixtures will be dead-rubbers. “The equation is looking tough,” their captain Kane Williamson conceded after defeat to West Indies, admitting that the situation felt almost surreal.

It will be the first time in a decade that New Zealand have failed to progress from their initial group in a men’s World Cup, after reaching the semi-finals of six successive tournaments from 2015-2023. Williamson denied it – “there’s still guys that will be here for some time” – but it does feel like the end of an era for an ageing team: Mark Chapman, the fourth-youngest player in their squad, turns 30 this month.

Things were nearly very different. New Zealand were unsure how the pitch would play after it was briefly exposed to a heavy shower on Tuesday but assessed conditions brilliantly. Their seamers hammered away on the short side of a good length and let the variable bounce do the hard work for them. West Indies were 30 for 5 in the seventh over and 76 for 7 in the 13th.

They were far better in the field than they had been against Afghanistan. Devon Conway took a superb catch off a Nicholas Pooran skier, almost over-running the ball as it flew up towards the floodlights before recovering by falling backwards. Jimmy Neesham, too, took a sharp low chance at short midwicket to remove Akeal Hosein.

Williamson was reluctant to bowl Mitchell Santner to Sherfane Rutherford, and understandably so: Rutherford strikes at 180 against left-arm spin in his T20 career. That prompted him to gamble on bowling out his four main seamers – Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Lockie Ferguson and Neesham – by the end of the 18th over: at that stage, Rutherford had 31 off 27 and West Indies were 112 for 9.

By now, you know what happened next: for the second game in a row, Daryl Mitchell was handed the 19th over, leaking 19 this time after conceding 16 against Afghanistan, and Santner’s 20th went for 18. It was phenomenal ball-striking, but meant that Williamson’s attempt at a quick kill had backfired.

“We knew that we needed to get Rutherford out,” Williamson said. “For us to try and take that wicket, and try to have the opportunity to restrict them to that 120 region, was worth doing, and didn’t quite pay off. Whatever overs they did bowl were going to be targeted… teams are batting a lot deeper, so you’re always trying to play that game of cat-and-mouse.”

It meant West Indies were just above par on a tricky surface, setting 150 to win for a New Zealand batting line-up short on match practice – and even training time. Glenn Phillips tried to take the game deep with his 33-ball 40 and there were cameos for Finn Allen and Santner, but they lost wickets regularly and struggled against spin, Hosein and Gudakesh Motie combining for 4 for 46 in their eight overs.

Here is a damning statistic for New Zealand’s batters: they have batted twice at this World Cup, and the biggest partnership they have put on is 23. Here is another: of the 14 players who have batted, only Phillips has faced more than 25 balls across two innings. One more for luck: they have lost the joint-most wickets to spin in the World Cup (10) – level with Uganda, who have played a game more.

Those numbers invite questions: should they have sent an SOS to Colin Munro, the all-time leading T20 run-scorer at the Brian Lara Stadium, where they play three of their four group matches? Could Tim Seifert – who has played 33 CPL matches and 61 T20Is, but only two at World Cups – have made a difference? Is there still space for Williamson – whose tournament aggregate is 9 for 2 off 15 balls – in a modern T20 line-up?

“We needed to have been better in these conditions specifically,” Williamson said. “We knew that it was going to be a real scrap and it was not going to be easy but if you win some small moments, match-ups go your way, then that can be a defining element to your whole tournament. And it hasn’t happened for us, which is frustrating.”

New Zealand’s pool of professional players is small enough that there will not be a complete overhaul by the 2026 T20 World Cup in India and Sri Lanka, but this is a side that needs a refresh. “Rutherford obviously played exceptionally well,” their coach Gary Stead said, “but that’s our challenge: to find a batsman that can do the same.”

Stead was left to rue the false start which has cost New Zealand dearly: “Afghanistan and West Indies have played well against us in difficult conditions and we were a little bit slow to adapt… It’s a little bit of a hollow feeling out there at the moment, and the guys are disappointed. We come here to try and win matches and win tournaments, and it looks as though that’s out of our hands at the moment.”

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

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