Kane Williamson's tactical nous pushed India to a corner, giving New Zealand another shot at World Cup glory
Ross Taylor had tossed and turned in his bed till 3 am before eventually reaching out to his wife over the phone as he played and replayed the second day of this "one-day" match in his head. Should he, the overnight batsman, hit out from the first ball and run the risk of the team getting bowled out under 230 or simply play the Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar overs out and get his team to a safe score.
A few rooms away, Kane Williamson slept peacefully, oblivious to the brewing storm in Taylor's head. The New Zealand captain had, after all, already relayed information from his number-crunching brain that 240 would be a winning score on this Old Trafford pitch when the pair batted together on the first day of this rain-hit classic.
How does one ascertain that a modest 240 to be defendable in this era of ODI cricket, even after factoring for the slow pitch and the swing and seam monstrosity that Manchester served up? By developing a target defence blueprint centered on all-out attack, of course.
Virat Kohli paid his opposite number the highest of compliments when he acknowledged that he was sure that if there is a low total, Williamson's New Zealand were perhaps one of only two sides (India themselves being the others?) capable of a successful defence.
"We knew they were going to attack more and not let the game go to the end, they won't take it deep, they will go all out and play the game that way because I have always seen them play that way," the Indian captain said.
Kohli's assertion of New Zealand's understated ODI strengths wasn't one of his perfunctory post-game sporting gesture towards his team's conquerors. Williamson's side had defended scores of 242 and 260 on similar wickets in Delhi and Ranchi during a closely-fought five-match series in 2016. On each of those occasions, India's powerful batting was expected to knock off totals that were deemed under-par at the start, only to run into an opposition that hit hard and hit relentlessly.
It helps to have fast bowlers of the ilk of Trent Boult and Matt Henry when the sun is playing peekaboo behind the clouds. But it requires gumption to offer them avenues that double their potency. When India's two biggest batting hopes, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, took guard against Boult and Henry, Williamson had five fielders - two slips, a gully, a short-midwicket and a short-backward square-leg in catching positions.
The vacant cover region was the dangling carrot leading into a landmine. With the ball bending around corners and the trapped moisture also offering seam movement, India were quickly down to 5 for 3 and then later to the worst PowerPlay score of the tournament - 24 for 4.
In most matches that is cue to add volume to a match report. But not quite in a 240 defence against a fairly deep line-up littered with finishers and one shrewdest of accumulators. Because one partnership is always only a couple of defensive tactical missteps away from developing, with the required run-rate never beyond a late catch-up. India fought back through Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya and more spectacularly via Ravindra Jadeja and MS Dhoni but Williamson's tactical nous always kept them one step behind.
It took all of two Colin de Grandhomme overs that Pandya and Pant knocked around easily for Williamson to play his first mid-innings gambit. He brought Mitchell Santner on from the Brian Statham end in the knowledge that left-hander Pant, having grown in confidence through his innings, would look to use the dexterity advantage (left-hander against left-arm orthodox spinner) to slogsweep his way out of the run-rate quagmire. By bringing on Santner from that end, he challenged the inexperienced batsman to hit to the long boundary. Pant took the bait and perished at deep mid-wicket.
When MS Dhoni walked in to bat under mounting scoreboard pressure, Williamson didn't use the opportunity to get out overs from his fifth bowler, James Neesham, and instead swapped the all-rounder with Lockie Ferguson in order to attack late-career Dhoni with two of his biggest batting bugbears: left-arm spin and extra pace into the body. As Dhoni found singles difficult to get off Santner and Ferguson, Pandya attempted to break the shackles with a foiled attempt at a slog sweep.
The New Zealand captain was only really surprised by a belligerent Ravindra Jadeja, who strode in at No.8 when all hopes were lost and timed the ball better than any of the 17 batters before him. He handled two Boult overs with relative ease and began clubbing the previously un-hittable Santner. All along Dhoni played anchor, happy in the knowledge that the game was eventually going to a place he most loves - deep.
But Williamson was not in the mood to indulge in a first-blink final-over battle with Dhoni. He didn't even want to get there. He began playing all his trump cards one after the other. With 52 to get off 30, Williamson faced a dilemma of his own, the kind of which would have left a less bold captain into making a defensive option with a World Cup final on the line.
But instead of trying to eke out the last Neesham over, Williamson decided to break the game by bowling out his two lead bowlers, Boult and Henry, thereby laying out an open challenge to one of the format's greatest finisher - if you want a crack at my fifth bowler (Neesham) in the 50th, you'll have to go through my best.
"Look, [with] someone like Trent, obviously a world-class bowler for us, we were trying to use his death overs as well as we could to either (a) push the run-rate up to a point that it would be more challenging and perhaps [force] hitting to a longer side in those later overs, or (b) try and dismiss the guys batting at the time, Jadeja and Dhoni, who we know can hit the ball a long way and can win games from that position," Williamson explained in his debrief at the end of the game.
Both (a) and (b) were checked off emphatically with that one move of tactical brilliance. Overs 46 and 47 brought only 15 runs between them as Boult and Henry pushed the required rate beyond 12 again. When no respite was forthcoming, with the ball or in the field, the imperious Jadeja cracked, skewing Boult up in the air towards mid-off, where Williamson completed one of the more ice-cool pressure catches in World Cup semifinal history.
That dismissal and the resultant spike in the run-rate meant Dhoni didn't have the luxury of getting to that final over without a couple of premature (for him) risks of his own. One such flirtation with danger, a desperate bid to retain strike, brought about another cold moment of brilliance on the field from Martin Guptill, who with one swift pick up and throw running in from deep square-leg, shut the lid on potentially the last significant 1v1 50th over battle of Dhoni's ODI career.
As New Zealand's fielders allowed themselves the luxury of a first 'proper' celebration of the evening around direct-hitter Guptill, Williamson jogged in gently from mid-on to the huddle, beaming a wide smile. After making the bold, but correct tactical call at every step of the way, he'd now also won at end game. A few small steps of his had now given New Zealand a giant step into another World Cup final.