Chasing elusive CWC trophy, NZ faces first test in Sri Lanka

New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, centre, shakes hands with members of the Bangladesh team following their eight wicket victory in their one day international cricket match in Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

CARDIFF, Wales – 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 in the International Cricket Council’s ODI 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, when it beat Australia in the final. The Black Caps’ only 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.

In a boost for New Zealand, pacer Boult and batsmen Colin Munro and Tom Latham have been declared fit after knocks _ a broken finger in wicketkeeper Latham’s case _ though doubts remain over batsman Henry Nicholls and medium-fast bowler Tim Southee.

“(Southee and Nicholls) have some minor niggles … and that’s why we can’t quite name our team today,” New Zealand captain Kane Williamson said Friday at a news conference.

The 35-year-old Taylor, 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 _ Martin Guptill (10th), Williamson (12th), and Latham (27th) _ before a Sri Lankan pops up through wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella tied for 34th.

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, with warm weather expected, Boult remains the spearhead for New Zealand, taking eight wickets in the warmup matches against India and West Indies.

While New Zealand’s seam bowling unit of Boult, 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.

Three-time finalist Sri Lanka 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 squad 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 attack to have some chance of beating any of the serious title contenders.

New Zealand beat Sri Lanka 3-0 in a home ODI series at the start of the year but Karunaratne appeared undaunted.

“It doesn’t matter who are the underdogs,” Karunaratne said Friday. “If you’re doing really well in that particular day, you can win a game.”

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 ICC’s anti-corruption investigators. Despite having lost nine of its last 10 ODI series, the Sri Lankans could be helped by the all-play-all 10-team format, while remaining a dangerously unpredictable opponent.

“We have a good side and we are fresh faces. We are trying to start again with this World Cup … we will be prepared really well,” Karunaratne said.

His team will be out to prove the statistics are wrong against New Zealand.