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England v New Zealand: Tactical Preview

Ben Jones looks at where Eoin Morgan and Kane Williamson’s teams can hurt each other, and the tactical battles that could ensue.

Boult v England’s Openers

The injury-enforced absence of Jason Roy disrupts an opening partnership which has been extremely effective for England in this World Cup. Regardless of whether Eoin Morgan chooses to replace Roy with Jonny Bairstow, Dawid Malan, or any number of unlikely alternatives, the successor will have big shoes to fill, but they’ll also be faced with the stiff challenge of negotiating Trent Boult’s Powerplay threat. A classic new ball bowler, Boult has found more swing the opening over of the innings this World Cup than any other bowler; while he hasn’t actually translated that into hatfuls of Powerplay wickets, the way that Buttler and his partner manage their intent against NZ’s primary attacking weapon will be highly significant.

An interesting comparison can be made with how England approached Mitchell Starc, another left-arm new ball quick who swings the ball, in their group game. In that Powerplay, England took Starc for 22 runs in two overs, ostensibly showing huge aggression against a new ball attacking threat. However, England scored those runs in a very clear way, going after the pitched up deliveries, scoring 15 (7) against good/full balls, and 7 (5) against anything short. Now, despite that hooping swing, Boult doesn’t pitch the ball up as much as Starc in the Powerplay, and when he does it tends to take wickets – 2 in 10 balls, this World Cup.

In essence, England are likely to try and counter Boult by fighting fire with fire, attacking his most attacking deliveries. Both sides are gambling – someone’s going to get burned.

England’s Middle Order v New Zealand’s Spinners

New Zealand’s spin pair of Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi have been in good form, crucial and contrasting cogs in the Kiwi attack. However, they have been a much greater threat against right-handers than left-handers in this tournament – as you’d expect. Santner is an orthodox finger spinner turning the ball from right-to-left, and while Sodhi is a wrist spinner, he is yet to bowl a genuine googly in this competition according to ball-tracking data; in other words, both are limited in taking the ball away from the lefties. Combined, they’ve taken eight wickets against right-handers at an average of 19, and an economy of 6.4rpo; against left-handers, they’ve taken only two wickets at 46, and an economy of 7.7rpo. Even if England promote Malan to open, they will still have Moeen Ali and Eoin Morgan in the middle order, both of whom are capable of taking the spinners down. The key for New Zealand may well be that if Moeen is facing those bowlers as an empowered No.3, free to go all out, they’ll be in trouble, but if England are in recovery mode following an early Boult assault, they could get away with it.

Livingstone’s Pace Shield

Kane Williamson might look at that middle overs matchup against England’s left-handers and think that, for all the quality and form of their spinners, it might be worth shifting more of Adam Milne’s overs into that phase. While he’s not quite as obvious an enforcer as Lockie Ferguson, Milne is rapid and more than capable of going hard at England’s middle order, particularly Moeen and Morgan who, to an extent, both have issues against high pace and short pitched bowling. England might accept this, and back their left-handers to weather the storm, given it will clearly offer rewards elsewhere in the innings; however, a subtle tactical move would be to ensure that Liam Livingstone isn’t held back too late into the innings. Livingstone’s record against high pace is outstanding (Averaging over 50, striking over 170) and his presence at the crease could act as a ‘shield’, either making Kane Williamson more reluctant to bowl Milne in the phase, or reducing Milne’s effectiveness when he does.

Guptill and Mitchell Attacking Moeen – or Rashid

Moeen Ali has been exceptional in the Powerplay this World Cup, taking five wickets at just 13, but matching it with a very healthy economy rate of 5.7rpo. His ability to rattle off those early overs is crucial in making England’s batting-heavy strategy work, given that it’s reliant on getting four overs out of Moeen and (the much inferior) Liam Livingstone.

The only game in this tournament where England have not been able to rely on Moeen’s overs was against Australia. The presence of Aaron Finch – an outstanding hitter of off spin – prevented England from bowling Moeen, and instead relied on Adil Rashid to take the new ball, and Livingstone to bowl through the middle as the ‘fifth’ bowler. While this isn’t a disastrous outcome for England (they did beat Australia after all), it’s clearly their Plan B, and they appear likely to return to Plan A against New Zealand given that neither Martin Guptill nor Daryl Mitchell have a great record against off spin. As such, Guptill and Mitchell have the opportunity to play above themselves and take Moeen down, disrupting England’s plans.

Squeezing Conway and Williamson

Both Williamson and Devon Conway have had slow scoring tournaments, playing cautiously and securely in New Zealand’s generally low scoring matches. While both are classy players in other formats, they are limited in terms of attacking ability, particularly away from the flatter pitches and smaller boundaries they’re used to at home. Morgan will identify this a pair in the middle overs who, while unlikely to subside without resistance, could be lured into a go-slow that works in England’s favour.

However, what is notable about Williamson and Conway’s scoring this World Cup is that they’ve both been significantly slower against one bowling type; Williamson against spin, Conway against pace, with the latter particularly pronounced. If England do decide to get ahead of the game with regard to Moeen’s usage by bowling Rashid in the Powerplay – something which is more likely in the second innings, given concerns about dew later in the innings – then it could limit their ability to put the squeeze on Williamson through the middle. Similarly, if England frontload the pace of Mark Wood, then they leave themselves open to some Conway ‘sweepology’ through the spin-dominated middle. It’s by no means the most significant aspect of the game, but depending on how England construct their attack through the middle, there’s an opportunity for one of Williamson or Conway to step up, and take them on.

Neesham’s Lone Hitting Role

New Zealand’s shallow batting order, with Santner at No.7, means that Jimmy Neesham is the one man clearly designated as a death overs hitter – a ‘finisher’, in old money – but also the one player other than Martin Guptill with genuine firepower. He’s had a quiet but reasonable World Cup, finding a bit of time in the middle against Namibia, as he strummed 35* (23) to carry his side to a more than defendable score.

Today is likely to see him in an influential position yet again, well-poised to take advantage of England’s creaking death bowling. In the Super 12 stage, England’s death economy was up above 10rpo, comfortably the worst of the ‘pre-qualified’ teams. In particular, the work of Chris Woakes – who in the current balance of the side, is pretty much obliged to come back and bowl one at the death – is a worry, going for 37 runs in two overs, a small sample but one which reflects a career-long ineffectiveness in this phase. Also encouragingly from a Kiwi perspective is that having played each other six times, Neesham has scored 36 (23) against Chris Jordan, albeit having been dismissed three times. Yet if Neesham can target Woakes, and continue his run-scoring record against Jordan, then New Zealand could well end the innings on a high.

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