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World Cup 2019: Nice guys can finish first

A few good men played cricket like gentlemen, won, shook hands and returned to the change rooms for a quiet celebration with their wives and girlfriends over a few glasses of wine and beers.

cricket Updated: Jul 13, 2019 08:34 IST
Somshuvra Laha
Somshuvra Laha
Hindustan Times, London
new zealand,world cup new zealand,world cup 2019 final
New Zealand's captain Kane Williamson, right, high-fives his teammates during a practice session.(AP)

A few good men played cricket like gentlemen, won, shook hands and returned to the change rooms for a quiet celebration with their wives and girlfriends over a few glasses of wine and beers.

There is nothing over the top about New Zealand. Kane Williamson was restrained, almost muted, in his jubilation after defeating India. He is embarrassed at comparisons with Joe Root and Virat Kohli even after playing one of the best ODI innings ever against South Africa. When cricket doesn’t keep Jimmy Neesham busy, he makes it a point to reply to every tweet with a dose of his dry wit, often at his own expense. The affable Trent Boult loves to surf—Dale Steyn is his best surf buddy— and play golf when not focusing on his seam positioning. Coach Gary Stead once used to scrub the windows of the Lord’s pavilion when he spent a summer here working on MCC’s ground staff. We are talking of a bunch of normal fellows, leading a normal life, punctuated by extraordinary events.

3am problem

Their world won’t be turned upside down if New Zealand win the World Cup on Sunday. But they certainly proved a few points: reaching consecutive finals, making it to a World Cup semi-final in eight out of 12 editions despite being underrated, understated, underdogs every time. Apparently, they don’t make for an attractive opponent. Between the two World Cups, New Zealand have played just 34 Tests, only Bangladesh (26) playing less than them. Television rights in New Zealand don’t get many buyers because waking up at 3 am to watch a Test isn’t cool.

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That is one of the reasons India haven’t toured New Zealand for Tests since February 2014 though they played six Tests against struggling Sri Lanka during the same window. This sustained disregard and apparent isolation has bred a will so strong that every time New Zealand come on to the field, they play to prove the world wrong. Does it fire him up knowing people write them off so easily? “I don’t know if ‘fired up’ is the right term,” Williamson was being humble before the semi-final. “Whether we are underdogs or not, it doesn’t really matter.”

What only matters to New Zealand is playing good, clean and strategic cricket. New Zealand have enforced that philosophy under different captains— from Martin Crowe to Stephen Fleming, Brendon McCullum to Williamson. In ways more than one, Crowe had established himself to be the gold standard of cricket in New Zealand. Hailing from a cricket family, Crowe was an exceptional batsman who went on to become New Zealand’s highest run-scorer. His finesse with the bat, coupled with Sir Richard Hadlee’s mastery with the ball, made New Zealand look feisty every match throughout the 1980s. Only after Fleming arrived though did New Zealand become a formidable fielding side, especially at the slip cordon.

Stand Fleming took

But the biggest contribution of Fleming—connoisseur of red wine and a one-time horse owner —was his support for players during a strike in 2002 that finally prompted the cricket board to come up with a pay structure that not only gives retainers but also distributes a healthy share of their revenue among the players.

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The steel that you see in New Zealand now is courtesy McCullum who brought home the idea of aggressive batting and out-of-the-box thinking. On a muggy evening in Bangalore, McCullum had set the tone of the IPL for ages with an epochal 73-ball 158 for Kolkata Knight Riders, schooling Indians on how exactly to approach the T20 format. He was also part of the thinktank that came up with the idea of opening the bowling with spinners Nathan McCullum and Daniel Vettori against South Africa in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final. New Zealand were always innovators. In case you forgot, they had got Dipak Patel to open the bowling and Mark Greatbatch come out as a pinch-hitter in 1992. McCullum was a product of this cricket legacy. His Test career was often mediocre but by scoring the first triple century for New Zealand (against India in Wellington, 2014), becoming the first Kiwi to score 1000 Test runs in a calendar year and the first player to play 100 consecutive Tests from debut, McCullum ticked boxes no one could.

Baz’s contribution

Together with coach Mike Hesson, McCullum made the Black Caps realise their ability to compete with any team on any surface. The confidence grew to such extent that the entire country answered his call to ‘dare to believe’ in the 2015 World Cup. Public endearment of the team was at an all-time high. When McCullum finally scored his triple century, Crowe wrote an emotional public letter to him, thanking him for helping in letting go of the angst of getting out on 299 against Sri Lanka in 1991. So close were Ross Taylor and Crowe that the first thing Taylor did after surpassing Crowe’s record of 17 Test centuries was to look up and whisper an apology. “I told Hogan (Crowe) ‘my apologies’ for taking so long to get there,” said Taylor who had reached the landmark in 2017, a year after Crowe died from lymphoma. To Crowe, the New Zealand players were ‘the sons I never had’. Trust Taylor to keep Crowe in his prayers when he steps inside Lord’s on Sunday.

Most unbelievable was the camaraderie within the team, evident when McCullum was asked what he would miss most after retiring. “To be able to sit around and see a group of guys who’ve been able to achieve something over five days, sitting around with smiles on their faces and bit of music going and you’ve got dirty whites, sweaty black caps and a beer in hand and to be able to look back on the hard work (and what’s been) achieved —that’s what I got into the game for and that’s going to be my last memory of the game as well.”

Williamson has successfully taken forward what McCullum started—making this New Zealand team look happy, united and dangerous. There is no star in the team. That culture has never been encouraged. Staying humble with grace is of paramount importance to this team.

Not being the No 1 sport of New Zealand—the All Blacks rugby union team players are demi-gods back there—also helps in staying rooted. Other sports too have a strong foothold. Twice have New Zealand played the football World Cup finals. Tennis is popular. So are basketball and netball. Cricket is somewhere in between. A measure of its awareness in New Zealand can be gauged from an article published by the New Zealand Herald a day after they beat India to reach the finals: ‘A guide to the Cricket World Cup final for people who don’t get cricket’. A team from this country has knocked out India and reached the World Cup final. At best, cricket is just a game played on drop-in pitches at multi-utility stadiums in front of small but niche audiences. Domestic cricket is satisfying but doesn’t pay like IPL. This year, only Martin Guptill and Lockie Ferguson got IPL contracts. A World Cup win won’t change any of that overnight. And New Zealand probably aren’t seeking that as well. To them, the joy is in winning, nothing else.

First Published: Jul 12, 2019 23:26 IST