Chasing elusive CWC trophy, NZ faces first test in Sri Lanka
CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Rarely over-confident — and never champion — New Zealand goes into its Cricket World Cup opener against Sri Lanka on Saturday knowing it comfortably outranks its opponent across the scoreboards.
As a team, the fourth-ranked and united Black Caps look down on ninth-ranked and often-divided Sri Lanka.
New Zealand also possesses players in the top-five batting, bowling, and allrounder rankings in Ross Taylor, Trent Boult, and Mitchell Santner, respectively, while Sri Lanka has none.
But New Zealand would happily burn all of its paper credentials for the physical trophy Sri Lanka lifted back in 1996, beating Australia in the final.
The Black Caps' last World Cup final was far more recent — losing in 2015 to rival Australia in Melbourne — and they have made the semifinals a remarkable and painful seven times.
The 35-year-old Taylor, long a middle-order rock for his country, has topped 8,000 ODI runs in 218 appearances at an average close to 50, and is third in the batting rankings. You have to drop down past a trio of teammates — hard-hitting Martin Guptill (10th), captain Kane Williamson (12th), and Tom Latham (27th) — before a Sri Lankan pops up through wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella tied for 34th.
Pacer Trent Boult is behind only India's Jasprit Bumrah in the bowling rankings, with no Sri Lankan in the top 10. Ahead of their match at Sophia Gardens, Boult remains the attack dog for New Zealand, taking eight wickets in the warmup matches against India and West Indies.
While New Zealand's seam bowling unit of Boult, Tim Southee, Matt Henry, and the fiery Lockie Ferguson is strong, many of the players who were part of the 2015 squad are gone, including captain Brendon McCullum, spinner Daniel Vettori, and allrounder Grant Elliot.
On the allround front, Sri Lanka's Angelo Mathews is ranked 10th but New Zealand can lean heavily on its own versatile players Santner, Colin de Grandhomme, and Jimmy Neesham.
Latham broke a finger this month and New Zealand has been hoping he'll be available for this game. But if he isn't, there's a good backup in Tom Blundell, who has yet to make his ODI debut but hit a century against the West Indies in a warmup this week.
Three-time finalist Sri Lanka, which reached the last eight in 2015, was well beaten in both of its warmups against South Africa and Australia.
A positive was the form of captain Dimuth Karunaratne, who hit an unofficial 87 against South Africa, after 77 against Scotland last week. Karunaratne was recalled after four years out of the ODI side to lead the team, and his best form will be needed to inspire a team which has cycled through 10 captains across the formats in recent years.
They will also be leaning on fast bowler Lasith Malinga — who took four wickets with four consecutive deliveries at the 2007 World Cup — to fire up the team to have some chance of beating any of the serious title contenders.
Sri Lanka has endured the distraction of suspensions of several players and board officials, including World Cup winner Sanath Jayasuriya, for not co-operating with International Cricket Council anti-corruption investigators. But they could be helped by the all-play-all 10-team format, while remaining a dangerously unpredictable opponent.
They'll be out to prove the statistics are wrong against New Zealand.