Time on New Zealand's side ahead of T20 World Cup despite series loss
A 3-2 defeat at home to an England side missing at least seven first-choice squad members, a legspinner completely off the boil, and a batting line-up plagued by inconsistency: there are plenty of factors that might be expected to cause a New Zealand panic regarding the state of their T20 side.
Less than a year out from the World Cup in Australia, New Zealand's results in the three-and-a-half years since the last global T20 tournament suggest a team in transition, without a clear identity: they have won 15 and lost 16, using 33 different players only nine of whom have played as many as half of those games.
The series against England was an effective demonstration of their flaws, and more crucially, their lack of a clear identity. New Zealand were a team without an obvious gameplan, whose balance changed game by game. After the first T20I, a batting allrounder (Jimmy Neesham) came in for a bowler who can bat (Scott Kuggeleijn); for the third, a fast bowler and No. 11 (Blair Tickner) replaced a batting allrounder (Daryl Mitchell). After a comeback win in the third game, they settled on that balance of six bowling options, but lost the final two as the weaker links in their bowling attack were taken apart.
In Cricket 2.0, a recent book which chronicles the history of T20 cricket, authors Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde explain that while batting is "strong-link dependent", meaning "a team's best player [can] single-handedly shape matches", bowling is "weak-link dependent" - "more like football, where weak players could leave entire teams and systems exposed". The fourth game of the series provided clear evidence of that, as two of England's strong links - Dawid Malan and Eoin Morgan - targeted the weak links in New Zealand's attack: the raw Tickner, the allrounder Mitchell and the out-of-form Ish Sodhi.
As an aside, Sodhi's form is another reason for concern: he is ranked in the top ten T20I bowlers by the ICC, and had taken 76 wickets in 61 T20 games in the two years before the start of this series, conceding 7.81 runs per over; in these five games, he leaked 11.73 an over. If New Zealand are to compete in next year's World Cup, they need him to draw a line under this nightmare series.
The challenge for New Zealand, then, is to marry their lack of depth - their player pool is not massive, and the drop-off in quality is reasonably fast - with a clear strategy.
Against England, New Zealand lined up mainly as a batting team, with a top four packed with attacking players in Colin Munro, Martin Guptill, Tim Seifert and Colin de Grandhomme. That left Ross Taylor in an unclear role, neither anchoring nor finishing, and meant the allrounders were generally left to finish the innings off.
Instead, it might be more prudent to pick a bowling-heavy side. One of the top three - most likely Munro, given Seifert will take the gloves - will drop out to accommodate Kane Williamson at No. 3 when he returns to fitness, and switching Ross Taylor and Colin de Grandhomme's positions should allow Taylor to play in a style that suits him more than power-hitting at the death (he strikes at a relatively conservative 150.83 in the final five overs since January 2017).
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That would then allow them to pick Neesham, or another specialist finisher, like Corey Anderson in the event he is fully fit. Santner's late-order hitting is good enough for him to bat at No. 7. That then allows for a five-pronged attack comprising bowlers who can be relied upon for four overs each: Santner, Sodhi, Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson.
Boult and Southee's recent T20 records are mixed, but it is hard to draw too many conclusions from them given they have only rarely focused on the format. If they prove too expensive, then Adam Milne, Tickner, Kuggeleijn and Seth Rance are the alternative seam options.
Given the conditions that New Zealand will likely face in Australia, a bowling-heavy team in the mould of Justin Langer's Perth Scorchers could work well: a batting line-up featuring Powerplay-optimising openers, high-quality middle-over rotators, a spin-hitter in de Grandhomme and some pace specialists for the death overs, plus five quality bowlers with no clear weak link.
The good news for New Zealand is that they have more than enough time to rotate and try out different options in each of those roles. Out of the eight teams that have qualified automatically for the Super 12 stage of the World Cup, none is scheduled to play more bilateral T20Is than New Zealand's 20 before the start of the tournament.
So long as they use those fixtures sensibly, trying to find a formula that will work in Australia rather than focusing on the immediate-term goal of winning series which are realistically friendlies, New Zealand have reason to be positive.