Hotshots make New Zealand gasp for breath in pristine Dharamsala

As hustlers enmeshed in the daily grind of life hail a cab at Gaggal Airport for the uphill drive to Dharamsala, the cool, fresh wind spreads the musky fragrance of deodar, pine and oak trees to awaken their senses. It is a pleasant surprise for the bone-weary traveller, an augury of the relaxation in store.

New Zealand have experienced that bliss off the field, paying a visit to the Dalai Lama at his residence in McLeodganj and trekking to Triund, but solace has been in short supply on the field. Their maiden defeat in ICC World Cup 2023 came at the HPCA stadium at the hands of India and the Australian openers subjected their bowlers to a leather hunt that will need a therapeutic spa to recover from.

Heading into the Trans-Tasman rivalry, Matt Henry bagged 10 wickets in 5 matches of the current edition. Since the 2015 World Cup, only Trent Boult has a finer ODI average among those with 35 or more wickets in the opening 10 overs. Henry averages 21.13, with 59 scalps and an economy rate of 4.19 within that timeframe in the PowerPlay.

He belongs to the rare breed of pacers who clock up speeds north of 140kmph while still upholding the virtue of accuracy. So the trainwreck of an over that cost 22 stood as much at odds with his flowering reputation as a new-ball enforcer as the AQI of Himachal Pradesh from the metropolitans of India.

Picking up length in a flash is David Warner’s métier, and on top of it, now he collapses his back leg to crouch low and access the leg-side off deliveries that aren’t short enough to play cross-batted shots. He cleared the front leg and hacked Henry over mid-wicket on the first ball of his second over to amplify the pressure on the quick, who’d given away boundaries on either side of the square with the hard new rock.

Returning from a hand injury, Travis Head was delighted to hear the sound of the buzzer early in his innings, not once but twice. The consecutive free hits Henry had to grudgingly bowl went the distance, with the connection on the former six as sweet as the carrot cake dished out by the rooftop cafe located near the sunset point in Naddi.

Boult from the other end managed to wrap up his four-over spell for 30 due to the outswing he was able to generate. He reacted to the twofold hostility by shifting his radar to the stumps and mixing up his lengths, showing a semblance of control that neither Henry nor Lockie Ferguson could provide. Second slip vanished to deep square leg as soon as the southpaws made their intentions clear, which is basically from the word go. Australia zipped past three figures in 8.5 overs, racking up the second-best PowerPlay total in World Cup history.

New Zealand failed to squeeze in a boundary-less over up until the 14th, with Head exhibiting no signs of rust whatsoever despite the 43 days spent on the sidelines. The introduction of Mitchell Santner into the attack in front of buccaneering left-handers was an eyebrow-raising move by Tom Latham, who puzzlingly turned to Glenn Phillips later than he should’ve. Head put his dancing shoes on to launch Santner over long-off and rocked on the backfoot to hammer a pull as the in-form spinner struggled to close out his opening over, facilitating the achievement of the joint-fastest fifty in the ongoing World Cup, off 25 balls.

Travis Head and David Warner came out firing on all cylinders.

The psychologically disorienting effect of the blitzkrieg could be seen in Ferguson’s execution, or the lack thereof. He bowled short outside the off-stump from round the wicket sans the cushion of deep point or third man, the width exacerbated by the angle as well as Warner’s back and across trigger. He activated his core to add an extra bit of oomph to his slick slashes over cover point and third man, their majesty rivalled only by the snow-capped Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas in the backdrop.

On that count, Phillips fared exceptionally well. His tight grouping of full deliveries in line with the stumps worked like a charm, stressing the fact that the margin for error against both Head and Warner lay on the fuller side. Thrown the ball at a time when the projected score read 506, the part-timer walked through the cannon fire unscathed with figures of 3/37, as if having internalized the calm and composure of Buddhist monks practising at the Norbulingka Institute during his week-long stay in the spiritually magnetic town.

Pegged back by Phillips, Australia scored just 104/5 in overs 20-39 after the barnstorming 175-run alliance between Head and Warner. Their partnership run-rate of 9.13 is the best for any 150+ opening stand in ODIs.

‘’Nice to be back with the boys. Nice to contribute. Very good wicket, Davey and I forged that partnership, we tried to put as much pressure as we can, we were able to get away today, take our chances and then also go on and make a really big partnership to set that platform. 388 is a really good score,’’ remarked Head, the fastest centurion on World Cup debut.

On match eve, Pat Cummins spoke about how Australia are beginning to play a brand of cricket that his team prides itself on following a false start at the marquee event. “Our group’s big on talking about the style that we want to play, and I think in the first two games not only did we not win, but I think we didn’t really nail the style that we wanted to play. I think in the last few games you’ve seen us be a bit more aggressive – batting and bowling. That’s a standard we want to keep going with for the rest of tournament,” the skipper observed.

Their batting performance at the HPCA Stadium against New Zealand qualifies as a benchmark, much like the venue is for cricket ground aesthetics.