On February 17, 2005, men’s T20 International cricket was born in Auckland.
In a match that was seen as a novelty, Australia and New Zealand made retro cool with body hugging canary and beige – and who could forget Hamish Marshall’s ‘fro?
Ricky Ponting came within two runs of scoring a century and Australia smashed 214 runs, a total well beyond the reach of Stephen Fleming’s side.
No one really cared about the result, it was all about the entertainment.
Fast-forward 11 years, as the two countries prepare to meet in the World T20, and the game’s landscape couldn’t be in greater contrast than Dharamsala’s Himalayan backdrop is to Auckland’s modern seaside setting.
T20 is now cricket’s big money-spinner and the trophy is sorely coveted by the two sides who started the international ball rolling but have never won the major prize.
Australia and New Zealand have only met four times since that inaugural match and have never played each other outside Australasia. New Zealand won their last encounter – back in 2010 – in a Super Over but Australia have been winners on every other occasion.
Without recent T20 results to fall back on Australia will seek to use last year’s emphatic World Cup final victory to gain a mental edge when the two sides meet at HPCA stadium, with Shane Watson hinting that his side won’t shy away from reminding their opponents of their capitulation at the MCG.
“Look there’s no doubt that the Kiwis always play very well and they always punch above their weight and they’ve been playing very good cricket especially over the last couple of years,” Watson said. “But knowing the history I’ve had playing against them, we’ve always played very well against them as well and there’s still quite a few people – players who are still there in that New Zealand team – who know that history and have been involved in the history as well. So we’ll certainly be letting them know of that, because they’re going to have to be at their absolute best to beat us.
“In the end we are going to have to play well whoever we play in this tournament no doubt,” Watson said. “But knowing that there’s a good rivalry and a good history there as well in big games that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of against the Kiwis, hopefully it follows a similar route.”
If Australia are using the 50-over format as inspiration, their opponents could do the same after claiming a 2-1 ODI series victory over Australia last month. New Zealand have also sounded a stern warning with their stunning opening victory over India, widely regarded as tournament favourites, and Watson knows Australia will face a road as steep as the one that switches back and forth to HPCA stadium if they lose their opening match.
“It’s very difficult if you lost the first game but the way Twenty20 cricket goes, if you get onto a roll, then you can be unstoppable,” said Watson. “It’s not the absolute be all and end all if we lose the first game but I’ve seen in so many tournaments that I’ve played in that if you get on a roll at the right time and qualify, that’s when a lot of teams win the tournaments.
“But most importantly, to take the pressure off to start off – it would be ideal if we put out a very good performance in the first game.”
Much has been made of Australia’s lack of T20 matches in the past year – they have played just seven since the start of 2015 – and they come into this match having tinkered and tinkered again with their line up, particularly their top four batting positions. The search for the strongest T20 line up while gunning for a Test series win in New Zealand left Australia flailing against India and still experimenting against South Africa but Watson isn’t worried about the lead in to the tournament.
“First of all we’ve got our main players playing every game,” Watson said. “Obviously in that T20 series [against India], guys were coming in and out; going to New Zealand. Players were being tried in different positions.
“There’s a lot more stability now, with our batting order and also our bowling options. So that’s always going to make a huge difference. And everyone’s just getting more comfortable now with what our roles are. Across all aspects, once you get that down then it’s a good starting point to be able to go from.”
But while Watson is adamant they are now a settled side, he also admits he doesn’t know who will open the batting on Friday.
“There’s a lot more stability now, with our batting order and also our bowling options. So that’s always going to make a huge difference. And everyone’s just getting more comfortable now with what our roles are.”
“I’m comfortable with whoever I’m batting with,” Watson said. “That’s a good question. At the moment both options, whether it’s Aaron [Finch] or Usman [Khawaja], they’re world-class options. So whichever way it goes it’s going to be great to bat with whoever it is.”
Thirty-four-year-old Watson is the veteran of an Australian side with a wealth of IPL experience in Indian conditions. But even he is unsure of how the HPCA pitch will play after a week in which two matches were rained out and two were curtailed by the unpredictable weather.
“The guys who have played here in the past said that the wicket normally has a fair bit of pace and bounce, a little bit along the lines of the wicket in Mohali,” he said. “The games that I’ve seen here in the lead-up games looks like the wicket has been a bit slow and turned.”
“It seems like there has been a fair bit of moisture around too, so that seems like the turn has had a fair bit to do with the moisture in the wicket as well. It’s going to be interesting see what happens. The forecast is not ideal, game day doesn’t look great. The forecast hasn’t been great the last week either.”
But, after losing his place in the Test and ODI sides, nothing it seems can dampen Watson’s eagerness for Australia’s campaign to get underway, not even the prospect of a hair-raising 40-minute bus ride to the ground through hairpin turns in the wet – he jokes about getting back to the hotel in one piece.
“I’m loving every single minute of it. To know that the end isn’t too far away, I’m continuing to live the dream of playing cricket for Australia…”
“I’m just excited about the opportunity of playing this tournament. Whatever happens, I’m just making the most of every single day that I’m here.”
Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.