After four years of waiting, the Black Caps are just a day away from their Cricket World Cup opener against Sri Lanka. Niall Anderson analyses how they're tracking ahead of their showdown in Cardiff.
The Black Caps' build-up to the World Cup has been a rather mixed bag; perhaps perfectly encapsulated by their two warm-up games. A truly dominant victory over India was then followed by the West Indies shellacking the Kiwi bowlers for 421 in a similarly lopsided contest – continuing an undulating last few months. There was the good – ODI series victories over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and some quality showings for the New Zealand XI against Australia, and also the bad – a series defeat to India, and the Indian Premier League leaving many of New Zealand's stars with little gametime ahead of the pinnacle event.
It looks as if the scare caused by Tom Latham's fractured finger has dissipated, thanks to a speedy recovery and the form of his stand-in, Tom Blundell. Latham has been ramping up his glovework and looks a good chance to be ready to face Sri Lanka, but if he isn't, then Blundell's 106 off 89 balls against the West Indies will have quashed any concerns that the uncapped keeper will be out of his depth.
Colin Munro missed the West Indies encounter with a bruised foot, but he and the several others carrying a niggle still have another day of training in Cardiff to prove their fitness for their opener.
The fact that the Black Caps don't have a settled XI could be spun as a good thing ("We have competition for places!"), but is hardly ideal. Players have testified that a big part of the 2015 side's run to the final was the fact that everyone knew their role, and while experimentation has a purpose, coach Gary Stead surely would have preferred to have his opening batsmen and opening bowlers locked in a long time ago.
Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Tom Latham and Trent Boult will be surefire starters in every game if fit, but the questions become trickier after that. Will Henry Nicholls be given a serious run at the top of the order? Which seamers will partner Boult? If only three of Jimmy Neesham, Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi can play in any one game, which do you leave out? Versatility is a good trait to have, but the Black Caps will have to be wary that is doesn't turn into complication.
Sri Lanka are well known to New Zealand audiences after their summer spent in Aotearoa, but they have made some drastic changes to their ODI outfit. Three straight losses to the Black Caps – conceding 371, 319 and 364 – was merely a continuation of what has been a shocking ODI side for some time now, with Sri Lanka having won just eight of their last 42 ODIs – half of which came against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe or Scotland.
So, out went a plenitude of players – of the 11 who played in their last New Zealand ODI, only six made the Cup squad – replaced by several players who haven't played an ODI in two years, and a captain - Dimuth Karunaratne – who hasn't won his one-day cap since 2015.
They still do have some talent. The Perera duo – Kusal and Thisara – have already shown the Black Caps what they're capable of, Angelo Mathews is back, and Isuru Udana had some fun against South Africa, but this game is one the Black Caps can't lose if they're to be viewed as a serious contender.
Unlike some of the wickets the Black Caps will be playing on at the Cricket World Cup, Sophia Gardens doesn't profile to be a complete batsman's paradise, but runs can still be had, as India showed early this week, when they smashed 359-7 in a warm-up win over Bangladesh.
Grant Elliott: Why the Black Caps should be worried
Hidden weakness? The Black Caps' potential World Cup problem
Roundtable: The big Herald Cricket World Cup preview
These days, almost any venue can be a conduit for big totals, but the Welsh ground's ODI history suggests that there could be some assistance for the bowlers. In the 24 ODIs played at the venue, the average score batting first is only 239, though that figure jumps to a still reasonable 284 when you factor in only games held in the past three years. Teams batting first also only have a 6-14-1 record, and depending on the wicket provided and the conditions overhead for the 10.30am local start, and bowling first could be a profitable strategy.
New Zealand played in the first ODI at Sophia Gardens, beating Australia by five wickets at the 1999 World Cup. They then claimed victories over the West Indies (2004) and Sri Lanka (2013) there, but recent results haven't been as rosy, losing to England in 2013, and in 2017 at the Champions Trophy, which was followed three days later by their stunning defeat to Bangladesh at the same venue.
Kane Williamson has scored the most runs of any non-Englishman at the ground, with 227 in four innings.
The Black Caps are $1.30 favourites to start their campaign on a winning note.