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Williamson urges NZ batsmen to play with freedom against India

Williamson urges NZ batsmen to play with freedom against India

MANCHESTER: New Zealand captain Kane Williamson encouraged his frontline batsmen to play with freedom in Tuesday’s semi-final against India to overcome their struggle for rhythm in the World Cup.

Not surprisingly, Williamson is New Zealand’s leading scorer after the group stage with 481 runs from eight matches at a 96-plus average.

The next Kiwi batsman in that list is veteran Ross Taylor, way down with 261 runs and an average of 37.28.

Williamson said his fellow batsmen had struggled to adjust to diverse English conditions where a winning total can vary greatly according to the state of the pitch on the day.

“We were certainly expecting that it would be tough. But what we didn’t quite expect coming into the tournament was the large variety of conditions that we faced,” Williamson told a news conference at Old Trafford. “That definitely made perhaps batting with any rhythm a real challenge for everybody, so being able to adapt with the bat and just trying to contribute ... is certainly the most important thing.

“It’s just a great occasion to be a part of. I know the guys are really excited by the opportunity to go out and try and try and play with that freedom that when we do gives us the best chance.”

Addressing a news conference before him, India captain Virat Kohli said the ‘special’ Williamson controlled the team’s tempo and would naturally be a key wicket for the Indian bowlers.

Williamson denied New Zealand were too reliant on him to give their bowlers a decent, defendable total.

“No, I think there’s also been a number of other contributions that have been really important for us to get to where we are right now,” he said.

“You never sort of put a number on it. That is why we all practice as hard as we can to try and make those contributions bigger and better.”

That, however, would not be easy against India’s varied pace attack, led by Jasprit Bumrah, currently the top-ranked ODI bowler.

Bumrah’s skills with both the new and old ball have been complemented by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, while Mohammed Shami has struck rich form after his delayed introduction, claiming 14 wickets from four matches, including the tournament’s first hat-trick.

Besides, India have two wily wrist-spinners in Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.

“The Indian bowling attack is an outstanding bowling attack, with certainly a lot of world-class operators in there,” Williamson said.

“As a side, they are very well-balanced with a lot of high-quality players.”

New Zealand finished their group campaign with a hat-trick of defeats but still claimed the last semi-final berth.

The 2015 finalists will hope to begin afresh on Tuesday, their captain said. “It all starts again where the day comes and anything can happen and all sides have beaten one another on a number of occasions throughout the last few years, so it is a really exciting opportunity for all teams.”

Meanwhile, Kohli admits Rohit Sharma’s blistering form has made him alter his own role in the top-order.

Sharma has smashed a record five centuries in a single World Cup to lead the tournament batting charts with 647 runs from eight innings.

Kohli has hit five fifties but a hundred has so far eluded the world’s top ODI and Test batsman, who is happy to let Sharma play the more aggressive role.

“It’s been a different kind of role that I have had to play in this World Cup. As the captain of the team I have been open to play any role that the team wants me to,” Kohli said on Monday.

“It’s great that Rohit is playing so consistently which means that coming in the latter half of the innings you have to play a different role, which is controlling and letting guys like Hardik [Pandya], Kedar [Jadhav] and MS [Dhoni] and Rishabh [Pant] come out and express themselves.

“I have understood that roles can vary a lot in one-day cricket depending on the time you step in to bat.”

Sharma comes in to the New Zealand contest on the back of three successive tons and two 180-plus opening stands with partner K.L. Rahul.

Kohli, who bats at No.3, was unbeaten on 34 when India won their last league game against Sri Lanka on Saturday and insists he is happy doing his more low-key job.

“I’ve been very happy with holding one end and letting guys express themselves, striking at 150, 160 or 200 if the team needs. I know that I can accelerate in the end,” Kohli said.

“I hope he [Sharma] gets two more [centuries] so that we can win two more games because it’s an outstanding achievement.

“He deserves all the credit and, according to me, he’s at the moment the top ODI player in the world.”

India’s matches in England have witnessed packed houses with fans of the cricket-crazy nation thronging to the venues carrying the Indian tri-colour and wearing blue replica shirts.

Kohli acknowledged the pressure each game brings, but he was adamant the team is used to performing under such high expectations.

“Look, the Indian team always carry a lot of pressure whenever we play. We are used to that to be quite honest,” said Kohli, who was part of India’s World Cup-winning team in 2011. “We are better equipped to react in these situations because we know what these kind of games and our fan base and the expectations bring.

“The disappointment is equal on either side. Our aim and our focus is on winning.”

Dhoni is highly unlikely to feature in the next edition of the 50-over World Cup as the wicket-keeper/batsman turned 38 on Sunday.

Kohli sidestepped questions on a possible send-off for the former captain as he praised the veteran’s contribution to Indian cricket.

“I am certainly not going to write anything down,” Kohli said in response to the potential for Dhoni to say farewell. “I am sure everyone, if you ask them about him, they have special things to say. Especially those who started their careers under him.

“When a person has done so much for the team, you have to appreciate and acknowledge what he has done for Indian cricket and how he has handled Indian cricket and taken respect for Indian cricket so high all over the world.”

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2019

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