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|ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup final: New Zealand v England|
|Venue: Lord’s Date: 14 July Start: 10:30 BST|
|Coverage: Watch in-play clips & highlights on the BBC Sport website & app; live Test Match Special radio and text commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live sports extra & BBC Sport website. Free to air on Channel 4|
Of all the logical explanations you can find for the illogical progress of New Zealand to the final of the Cricket World Cup, nothing is as persuasive as their skipper Kane Williamson.
Persuasive is precisely what Williamson is, because in a tournament that was supposed to be about big hitting and blockbuster totals he has been the unassuming conductor of its gentle low-fi reality.
In almost two months of low scores, slow wickets and half-baked chases, Kane has been able in ways others have not. In the process he is a game away from pulling off the most unexpected triumph since Sri Lanka pinch-hit their way to glory 23 years ago.
A win at Lord’s on Sunday would be close to miraculous, not just for the barriers New Zealand have cleared but also for the problems they have caused themselves.
Thrashed by England in the group stage by 119 runs, by Australia by 86 runs and by Pakistan by six wickets. A nation of 4.3 million people beating one of 1.3 billion in a semi-final that most assumed was lost at the innings break, a country with a national sport whose own World Cup does not begin until September in Japan.
A tournament that was about the Big Four that is now down to two, Williamson and Root. A semi-final that was supposed to be a tale of the two threes, in which the quiet man from the Bay of Plenty overwhelmed the superstar from the land of many more.
Virat Kohli cannot leave his house in Mumbai without armed guards. He cannot walk down the street without being mobbed. Williamson could turn up at Lord’s in his tracksuit and still need to show ID to get past the stewards.
It is Williamson who has gone further and had the greater influence. Across nine innings in this World Cup he is averaging a remarkable 91 with the bat. Kohli is back on 55, Joe Root 69, Steve Smith 38.
Kohli has had the blistering support of Rohit Sharma and his five centuries. Three India batsmen ended with a higher average than their captain. Four Australia batsmen have a superior average to Smith. Root has been buttressed by Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Jason Roy.
Williamson is personally responsible for almost a third of his team’s total runs. He has done that behind openers who have produced the lowest average stand for the first wicket of any team in the tournament.
Martin Guptill was the top scorer at the last World Cup. Four years later he has five single-figure scores and a solitary 50. Williamson has shouldered that burden and strode on regardless.
Three times he has been at the crease before the end of the first over. He has arrived in the second over, the third, fourth, sixth and ninth. Almost always he has prospered: the century against West Indies after both openers had gone for golden ducks; the endlessly patient 67 in the semi-final as wickets fell and runs dried up all around him.
Kohli was expected to be the one heading to Lord’s with his team on the brink. Kohli was supposed to steer India to what looked like a straightforward total at Old Trafford. This is a batsman who has produced 23 of his 38 one-day centuries in run-chases.
His dismissal instead for just one had a lot to do with Trent Boult’s inswinger and just as much with the fielding trap that his skipper had set. It means that in six innings in the knockout stages of three World Cups the Indian great has compiled just 73 runs at an average of 12.
It has been easy to miss Williamson’s parallel domination. His predecessor as national captain, Brendon McCullum, was all about attack, then some more attack. If that didn’t work he attacked some more. It was cricket from some glorious liberated future and it inspired all England have wanted to be across the past four years.
McCullum the batsman was all knockouts and hammer blows. Williamson gets there with jabs. Williamson wears you down in such undemonstrative fashion that you don’t even realise you’re cut until the referee waves it off.
Across the tournament he has hit a grand total of three sixes. Rohit blasted 14, Aaron Finch 18, Eoin Morgan has hit 22. Against India he gently nudged his team to an underwhelming 28-1 after 10 overs, the slowest start of the entire tournament. At one point he went 13 overs without a boundary.
It seemed like the most supine way to let a critical game slip away. He was there for 32 overs, his 67 taking 95 balls, with most observers in the ground agreeing this was powder-puff when power was required. This World Cup was going to be about innings as wrecking-balls not careful construction.
Only as wickets tumbled in India’s reply did the innings’ true value become apparent. These curious pitches across the country have fooled plenty. Williamson has repeatedly judged them to perfection.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Williamson has been doing this for the best part of a decade. He averages 53 in Tests and 47 in one-dayers, scored a century on his Test debut and went past 3,000 Test runs at a younger age than Don Bradman.
He also has reason to be grateful for the clause in the regulations that gave such weight to net run-rate, and so saw New Zealand qualify for the last four in front of the more dashing Pakistan. One 10-wicket win in their opening match had far greater significance than anyone realised at the time.
But he deserves to be there, his captaincy following the same discreet pattern as his batting – and being just as significant.
Kohli is the great showman in the field, Williamson the restrained manager. He has marshalled his limited resources and kept them calm through the most intense pressure.
As a skipper he did everything right in those extraordinary first four overs as India lost three critical wickets. When the squeeze came on at the end and MS Dhoni and Ravi Jadeja looked like pulling off the great escape, he brought the right bowlers on at the most apposite time and kept the tourniquet tight with his field.
Only 12 runs came from the 12 balls before Jadeja holed out. Dhoni had to wait until the 70th delivery he faced to find his second boundary. He was run out two balls later.
And so to the closing miracle. When New Zealand reached their only previous World Cup final, Williamson was caught and bowled by Mitchell Johnson for 12 after McCullum had gone for a duck in the first over. That was almost the game gone.
On Sunday Williamson will go again. Once more another team will be favourites.
The quiet man is quite happy with it that way.