New Zealand blast into T20 World Cup final as England crumble at the last

England’s attempt to unite the white-ball belts ended in Abu Dhabi with them on the canvas, bewildered and then beaten by a succession of vicious blows from Jimmy Neesham and Daryl Mitchell as a spellbinding game reached a brutal conclusion.

Between them they simply pulverised England’s death bowling as, at the end of an evening when batters consistently struggled to time the ball and find the boundary, everything suddenly clicked. In the end New Zealand cantered to victory by five wickets with an over to spare.

Defeat will sting, of course, and it will be little consolation to Eoin Morgan’s side that they contributed to a slow-burning thriller of a semi-final, a match that teetered compellingly on a knife-edge throughout.

It was not until the 16th over of the second innings that either side seemed to grab the game, and at that point it was England who briefly took control as Liam Livingstone ended his allocation by leaking just three and taking the wicket of Glenn Phillips. At that point their opponents needed an apparently far-fetched 57 from 24, and Neesham was fresh to the crease.

New Zealand immediately ripped the game right back out of their grasp again, and this time there was to be no comeback. Chris Jordan, England’s one genuine death-overs specialist, was completely marmalised by Neesham in the following over. It turned into England’s most expensive of the tournament, 23 runs coming off it including a couple of wides, and by its end it looked the Kiwis’ game. Neesham fell to the last ball of the 18th over but it hardly mattered, given what Mitchell was about to do to Chris Woakes. He had never scored an international T20 half-century, but ended the most important game of his life unbeaten on 72 off 47 balls.

After the 50-over World Cup and the World Test Championship, New Zealand have now made three finals in three years in three formats, an extraordinary achievement. They have also brought to an end a run of high-profile defeats to England, and though they had promised that memories of their gut-wrenching defeat on boundary countback in the 2019 World Cup final would not be on their minds there was some poetic justice in Neesham, who faced all but one ball of New Zealand’s super over that day, returning to all but decide this match.

It was a night when New Zealand’s core strategy of prioritising bowling depth, restricting their opponents’ run-scoring and leaving themselves a chaseable target worked to perfection, albeit after a little more drama than they might have liked. Meanwhile England’s decision to replace the injured Jason Roy with Sam Billings and bolster their batting, however well the formula has worked over recent years, looked decidedly unwise as the 30-year-old did not face a ball and their death bowling was mercilessly punished.

England’s minds might drift back to the moment, halfway through Jordan’s decisively expensive over, when Jonny Bairstow executed a phenomenal catch on the boundary and, knowing he was heading over the rope, tossed the ball to Livingstone. England celebrated a brilliant relay catch but Bairstow seemed strangely half-hearted, and sure enough replays showed his knee making contact with the boundary padding just before he released the ball. In a game of tight margins perhaps this was the decisive moment, for all that New Zealand’s victory was hard-fought and ultimately comprehensive.

Having won the toss and inevitably chosen to field, their long bowling attack slowly coiled around England’s batters from the start, restricting their freedom and their scoring. Bairstow, promoted to open in Roy’s absence, looked unsettled at the top of the order, hitting two boundaries including one off the inside edge in his 17-ball 13, and Dawid Malan’s was a very Dawid Malan innings: loitering at around a run a ball for a while before accelerating, particularly strong on the cover drive. But when he truly tried to motor he crashed, heaving Tim Southee for six and then edging the next as he attempted a repeat. In between England had to come to terms with the shock of Jos Buttler doing only moderately well, before being trapped lbw by Ish Sodhi.

Instead Moeen Ali provided the backbone of their innings, scoring his third T20 half-century and cementing his status among the key players in a team that ignored him for the best part of two years before welcoming him back in 2020. But the feeling at the halfway stage was that England had been pedestrian for long periods, had not made use of their fabled batting depth and had reached a score that was no more than par.

Martin Guptill, probably the batter England feared the most, fell to the third ball of New Zealand’s innings and when Kane Williamson followed not long after the Kiwis were 13 for two. They needed a partnership, and Devon Conway joined Mitchell to provide one.

They, too, found timing difficult – after five overs together both were still going at just under a run a ball – but they offered few chances and looked ominously set when Conway was stumped off Livingstone in the 14th over. At that stage England seemed to be ahead on points, but New Zealand and Neesham were about to land the knockout blow.


Story first published on The Guardian

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Simon Burnton at Zayed Cricket Stadium