Sri Lanka’s 2019 tour to New Zealand was arguably the most under-rated ODI series in a while. Maybe that it fell ahead of the World Cup and ran nearly in parallel to the high-scoring England and West Indies series in the Caribbean, where Gayle and Buttler launched mighty hundreds, impacted the attention given to it.
The contests didn’t carry that fanfare you’d much associate with a Windies. Or was New Zealand embodying a no non-sense, shenanigan-free disposition the reason?
Regardless, it was a series Kane Williamson would be proud of in times to come.
Though from the perspective of the hosts, the whitewash imposed on Sri Lanka wasn’t the only big output. That the hosts compiled huge totals, all in excess of 300 in three consecutive games gave a clear example of New Zealand’s dominant touch.
The 49th over of New Zealand’s inning in the first ODI was the most spectacular in the series.
After Guptill dealt early damage with his 138, it was time for other Kiwi birds to chirp. Not that Sri Lanka enjoyed it.
As Thisara Perera rushed into bowl at New Zealand’s lower order, the first ball was dispatched to the deep mid-wicket boundary for a six.
The second ball, again fuller, was sent at nearly the same slot in the ground. 12 collected from 2.
There was no word from captain Malinga. After all, what could be told to someone with an experience of over 150 ODIs?
The right-armer adjusted his length on the third, however, and bowled it slightly wide of off. But the result was the same. Only the direction of the six changed; from deep mid-wicket to long-off.
The scorecard read 340 for 6.
But the fourth delivery was again pitched fuller, the result being the white ball disappearing into the crowds. The six this time was the biggest.
The kind of stuff Stuart Broad- had he been watching- would’ve turned away from, though not necessarily, Yuvraj Singh.
Then, a no-ball followed with a couple of runs, the over until then yielding 26 runs. Sadly, the bowler didn’t learn by his mistakes; the fifth delivery went outside the park.
A visibly chuffed Ian Smith exclaimed, “straight into the gutter!”
The final ball didn’t return a similar fate.
But with that exhibition of surface-to-air missile batting, Jimmy Neesham compiled 47 unbeaten runs.
It took him 13 deliveries to do so. It also earmarked Neesham’s strengths as a batsman- a man who likes to pick his spots and can target a particular bowler to ensure the team is hung out to dry.
Was that the most effective cameo by a Kiwi batsman against Sri Lanka? No idea.
But we know for powering six sixes that breezy Bay Oval evening, Jimmy Neesham put on a show anyone, whether an Andre Russell or Shane Watson would have loved.
Though he wasn’t done yet.
An hour later, he removed two dangerous openers in Gunathilaka and Dickwella who had the situation in control, Sri Lanka going strong at 119 for no loss chasing 372.
His best, however, was to follow ahead.
He turned up at the same ground two days later and improved his past score.
This time, he helped Munro and Taylor- both with beautiful fifties- with an even more lethal exhibition of left-handed slam-dunking.
A 64 off just 37 balls with a very T20 strike rate of 173, Neesham formed headlines with another lower-order blitz. In his turn with the ball, he targeted Gunathilaka once again, also Sri Lanka’s second-highest scorer that evening after Perera’s century.
A beautiful reminder that the New Zealand order doesn’t end with Guptill, Williamson, and Taylor and that in Neesham the party continues long after midnight hours.
Though more handily for New Zealand, Neesham’s brilliant form wasn’t going to dissipate anywhere. It would, as the World Cup would unravel, only go from strength to another.
The fun-loving all-rounder, who bats with an unflustered approach would do even better at cricket’s biggest stage.
And truthfully speaking, just like no Indian fan witness to Tendulkar’s magic can ever forget the master’s 97 against Pakistan (then his 82nd fifty) no living New Zealand fan who dotes after the game may easily forget Jimmy Neesham’s 97, yet another world-class fifty that came in a World Cup, much like Sachin’s in the 2007 edition.
Maybe Jimmy himself would hold little for the reverent co-incidence that two of the finest world cup fifties of all time have been scored against Pakistan, although his career-best knock ending in a defeat for his team unlike the Little Master’s.
Against Pakistan on June 26 at Birmingham, with his team in all sorts of trouble, losing Guptill in the first over, then Munro with the total on 24, before losing Taylor and Latham soon after, Neesham arrived to play repairman with New Zealand being 4 for 46.
The kind of task you’d rather want Williamson to do. The kind of task Williamson watched perhaps in quiet amazement.
One of those days where the reggae-singer was challenged to sing a ballad, be more attentive; drop the high pitches for nuanced singing.
A team, that at one stage was 5 for 83, would finish on 237. Neesham would contribute 97 of those runs eschewing the desire to go for big hits.
The familiar aerial route- so often a feature of his batting- made way for creating tunnels of concentration on the ground. Watchful against Aamir and Afridi, he’d free his arms against Wahab Riaz and Shadab Khan.
There were 30 singles in that knock.
Just Jimmy Neesham things- isn’t it? That man who likes to slog for his team but never minus on the quips.
The 30-year-old ended being a world-cup semi-finalist with 232 runs, the most he’s scored over a career that began in 2012, against the Proteas in a nightmare run with the bat; eighteen runs from three games.
But it wasn’t just batting alone that twinkled the leftie’s graph in the World Cup.
In the semi-final clash against India, with Henry and Boult on fire with the ball, it was Neesham’s excellent reflexes in the circle that sparked a breakthrough for New Zealand.
In a series lauded for ‘that Ben Stokes catch’, have we held little for Neesham’s blinder against Dinesh Karthik?
Where we ought to give Neesham credit is that he’s come a long way as a batsman, taking nine full series before he could carve a hundred runs in a single series.
A man of huge strike rates, it was consistencies with the bat that awaited him, Neesham finally carving 108 from just two games against Australia, in 2016.
That said, a single line of statistics concerning Neesham’s career, that at 30, is still largely developing should allow for a verdict to be passed.
For someone who’s bowled more than he’s batted, in ODIs, Neesham’s conceded 2012 runs from 59 bowling innings, while he’s collected 1286 runs with the bat (54 outings).
Is bowling that big area New Zealand would like their handy all-rounder to master? An ODI economy of 6.1 can appear a whole lot meaner if he can bring it down to 5.5.
And should that be taken care of, can Neesham shine his star as one of the brightest in the ODI and T20 galaxy?
An athlete who places fitness at a very high pedestal, Jimmy Neesham’s best days, one would hope, are ahead of him.
Frankly, given his team’s wealth of options, in the limited-overs arena, Neesham’s hardly played an awful lot, especially when you consider Neesham’s only played 18 T20Is having debuted in 2012.
Maybe it’s that lack of chances that haven’t allowed Jimmy Neesham to give a full inlet of his craft. Maybe it’s just New Zealand’s choosy DNA; one that attaches an element of bright surprise to their game.
What must be said is that in one of their better all-rounders to have donned the Blackcap, there’s one who can walk the long path too.