Growing up in the 1960s, I thought of the West Indies and the New Zealand as constituting the North and South Poles of world cricket. Both were English-speaking, both had Christian populations that lived on islands and (in terms of numbers) could comfortably fit into one medium-sized Indian city.
Such were the geographical and demographical factors that united these teams. In terms of cricketing prowess, however, they were polar opposites. The West Indies were then the undisputed world champions, New Zealand by far the weakest side in international cricket. My team, India, was always expected to lose to the West Indies. And it was always expected to defeat New Zealand. Not unexpectedly, it was the Kiwis against whom we won our first Test series overseas.
Till February 17, 1976, the Indian cricket fan treated Kiwi cricket, and Kiwi cricketers, with condescension. But on that day news came from across the seas that we had lost a Test match by an innings to what we thought was the worst team in the world. A then largely unknown young man named RJ Hadlee had taken 7 for 23 at Wellington’s Basin Reserve, as India collapsed from 75 for 3 to 81 all out.
There had been fine New Zealand cricketers in the past. They included the left-handed batsmen Martin Donnelly and Bert Sutcliffe, and the swing bowlers JA Cowie and Dick Motz. All would have been candidates for a World XI in their time. But — and this is the significant point — none expected to be part of a New Zealand side that won against anyone.
It was Richard Hadlee who first gave the Kiwis the sense that, on the right day and under the right conditions, they could actually win Test matches. A tearaway fast bowler in his youth, as he matured Hadlee came to develop a wide repertoire of skills. He could seam and swing it both ways, bowl a wicked yorker, and had immaculate control to boot. And he was also a handy lower-order batsman.
The next New Zealander to have a decisive impact on the game was Martin Crowe. Like Hadlee, he had an elder brother who also played Test cricket. And just as Hadlee was, in his pomp, the best bowler in the world, for some years in the 1980s Crowe was reckoned by knowledgeable judges to be the finest batsman in the world. He had strokes all round the wicket, was equally composed against slow and fast bowling, and was superb when playing with the tail. That master of swing and reverse swing, Wasim Akram, has said that no one played him better than Crowe.
I never watched Richard Hadlee live, though I heard many of his spells unfold on the radio and watched the odd one on television. I watched Martin Crowe live twice; alas, on each occasion, he was undone by an incompetent Indian umpire. Playing against India in Bangalore in the 1987 World Cup, Crowe was given out stumped off Maninder Singh, although replays clearly showed that the keeper did not have the ball in his hand when he broke the wicket. Eight years later, at the same ground, he was adjudged l.b.w. to Anil Kumble, although the ball would have comfortably missed the leg stump and was too high as well.
The third modern Kiwi great was the all rounder Chris Cairns. His off-field conduct notwithstanding, Cairns was a magnificent cricketer, a bowler of lively pace and sharp swing, and an aggressive batsman with a penchant for the lofted shot. I recall watching a Test match in England on TV when he took apart the slow left-armer Phil Tufnell. In one over he came down the wicket, but slightly mistimed his stroke, the ball landing just beyond the ropes for six. The next ball he came down again, and, as he timed the ball sweetly this time, the stump microphone caught him saying, in his Kiwi accent: ‘That’s bay-ter!’ It was, indeed, the ball sailing out of the ground into the parking area beyond.
Hadlee, Crowe and Cairns all gave Kiwi cricketers the sense that they could defeat India or Pakistan, England or Australia. It is their heritage that the present New Zealand side builds upon. This self-confidence is most visibly manifest in their captain, Brendom McCullum. In his batsmanship, he has exceeded even Sanath Jayasurya in the capacity to determine a match’s fate in the first ten overs. In his captaincy, he has exceeded even Steve Waugh in his keenness to take wickets rather than simply stem the flow of runs.
In this World Cup, the Kiwi side has showcased a superb range of talents: the batting of Elliot, Williamson, Taylor and Guptil apart from McCullum, the swing bowling of Boult and Southee, and the spin bowling of the seemingly ageless Daniel Vettori. The team’s fielding has been outstanding. And, as was once the case with the West Indies, their achievements are staggering when considered alongside their population. The country has 70 million sheep, but less than 5 million human beings. They would all fit into Noida, and yet the cricketers they produce can take on the world.
This column will appear on the morning of the World Cup final. But whatever happens in today’s match, New Zealand are for me the team of the tournament. Their cricket throughout has been thrilling. By their achievements on the field, McCullum’s men have comprehensively rebutted the condescension they have for so long received from the alleged Great Powers of the cricketing world.
(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed by the author are personal.)