New Zealand’s turbo-aggressive yet endearing cricket turned a rugby-mad nation into a cricket-loving country in 2015. Brendon McCullum, the (Super)man who was at the forefront of New Zealand’s surge then, will breathe easy in the commentary box this time. Sure, Kane Williamson hates it – but the focus will be on him this time. The current New Zealand captain is more endearing than turbo-aggressive, and he recently led the side to No. 2 in the Test rankings, for the first time. Can New Zealand go one step better in the 2019 World Cup?
New Zealand had suffered a premature exit in the 2017 Champions Trophy in England – partly due to the absence of bonafide power-hitters on flat pitches – but they have now remedied that. The latest version of James Neesham can go boom from ball one – just ask Thisara Perera. The latest version of Mitchell Santner and big-hitting allrounder Colin de Grandhomme can provide more spark with the bat in the lower order.
But there’s a major concern right at the top. Colin Munro is no longer the white-ball monster who spooks bowlers and was struck flush on the foot by a Jasprit Bumrah yorker in the first warm-up and missed the second game against West Indies. Henry Nicholls got the rather unexpected nod to open alongside Martin Guptill in four ODIs at home earlier this year and gave a good account of himself. He looks set to bed in at the top – whether Munro is fit or not.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka have had a more chaotic build-up to the tournament: they nearly missed automatic qualification and all told they have lost 41 of the 55 ODIs they have played since the start of 2017.
Dimuth Karunaratne, who has played all of one ODI since the previous World Cup, finds himself in the middle of chaos as the captain. Despite the promise of Kusal Mendis and the experience of Angelo Mathews, Sri Lanka’s batting line-up doesn’t make you sit up and take notice of them. Oh, and their fielding can make you lol.
Sri Lanka’s two-in-one players Thisara and Isuru Udana will have to do the heavy lifting if they are to spring a surprise.
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Sri Lanka WLLLL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand WWWLW
In the spotlight
James Neesham missed the cut for the 2015 World Cup and instead watched that semi-final against South Africa from the Eden Park grass banks – although his tweets suggested he was still having fun. Neesham had fallen out of love with cricket in 2017 and even contemplated retirement, but he’s now back in the frame as New Zealand’s premier allrounder. He has already had a rousing start to the month: a central contract and a CPL gig with defending champions Trinbago Knight Riders. Is it going to get better?
Creaky knees and all – Lasith Malinga is gearing up for his fourth World Cup. He showed he still has it – in case anybody doubted him – delivering the IPL title for Mumbai Indians with a series of yorkers and one mean slower dipper. How about another four in four this World Cup?
Lahiru Thirimanne is set to open with Karunaratne, but the rest of the line-up is pretty difficult to predict.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne (capt), 2 Lahiru Thirimanne, 3 Kusal Mendis (wk), 4 Kusal Perera, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Dhananjaya de Silva, 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Jeevan Mendis, 9 Isuru Udana, 10 Lasith Malinga, 11 Nuwan Pradeep/Suranga Lakmal
New Zealand’s first-choice wicketkeeper Tom Latham has resumed training at full tilt and is available for Saturday’s game. New Zealand might have to make a choice between left-arm spinner Santner and Ish Sodhi on the spin front. Having leaked 107 runs in nine overs in the warm-up against West Indies, Matt Henry could make way for Tim Southee.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Henry Nicholls/Colin Munro, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Tom Latham (wk), 6 James Neesham, 7 Colin de Grandhomme, 8 Mitchell Santner/Ish Sodhi, 9 Lockie Ferguson, 10 Trent Boult, 11 Matt Henry/Tim Southee
Pitch and conditions
The pitches during the Champions Trophy provided a fair amount of assistance to the seamers in 2017, but the most recent ODI at this venue saw 646 runs being racked up. However, the pitch was so green on the eve of the match that it was indistinguishable from the outfield. Cardiff has had some spells of rain in the past week, but the weather is expected to be fine for the duration of the match.
Stats and trivia
No seamer has more wickets than Trent Boult’s 108 since the 2015 World Cup. Kagiso Rabada, too, has claimed 108 wickets although he has had the benefit of playing 12 more matches than Boult.
New Zealand have lost all of their last three games at Sophia Gardens.
Sri Lanka’s ragtag squad has an average age of 30.43 – the highest among all sides in the World Cup.
Legspin-bowling allrounder Jeevan Mendis, like his captain Karunaratne, has played just one ODI since the 2015 World Cup.
“We had a couple of really good warm-up games and it was good to get the boys back together. I was delighted with both workouts; we were put under pressure. All in all, confidence levels are high going into the World Cup.”
New Zealand head coach Gary Stead