One of the strangest of all sporting phenomena will be witnessed today. New Zealand go into a match against Australia with a swagger instead of a whimper. In many eyes, except those of the bookmakers, they are indeed favourites for abundantly sound reasons: New Zealand know what they are about, Australia do not.
The Kiwis have been a position of such strength before but that was when Richard Hadlee was plain Mister as one of the best bowlers around. Of course, they have beaten their rivals across the Tasman plenty of times since, usually in limited-overs cricket and famously by seven runs in a Test match in late 2011. But they have inevitably won as the underdogs. Such at present is Australia's sorry plight, especially in the prolonged absence of their captain, Michael Clarke, and so bristling the form of the New Zealanders, that the normal positions have been reversed.
It will mean nothing when they square up at Edgbaston today and the Kiwis' inferiority complex still has a habit of kicking in. However, the simplest indication, which is often what counts, is that New Zealand's strong bowling attack may be too much for Australia's brittle batting.
Clarke was ruled out of the match early today. His chronically injured back was said to be progressing well in a London clinic but without practice it would have been foolhardy to consider him. Australia, in a mixture of optimism, stubbornness and desperation, still aim to have him fit in time for their final Pool A match next Monday, against Sri Lanka. But the Ashes must now be the more genuine aspiration.
"Oh, we missed him last game," said George Bailey, Clarke's stand-in both as captain and middle-order bulwark. "He's our captain and our best batsman, so we miss him every time he's not with us, but as any team does when you've got your best players out, the challenge is for someone to step up and fill the hole or numerous people to step up and fill the hole. There's probably no easy way to cover him."
Which does not sound especially confident. New Zealand are revitalised, a win in the one-day series against England was followed by a close one-wicket triumph in their first Champions Trophy tie against Sri Lanka.
Tim Southee, the fast bowler who helped them through with the bat last Sunday and was still there at the end, reflected on how New Zealand's time in England had helped. "I think our preparation has been perfect, to play three one-day internationals against a top-class side in the conditions we're going to face during the Champions Trophy. We've had a bit of time to get used to the cold weather and the wicket."Reuse content