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Perennial dark horses

For some strange reason, New Zealand, a very talented outfit, have never reached a final despite making four semi-finals. Will they break the jinx this time around?

india Updated: Jan 12, 2003 23:30 IST

Every four years it comes around. All playing nations will have focused on their World Cup preparations for at least the last two years, working on combinations and giving players opportunities to perform, especially in pressure situations. Any player who had early promise a few years ago, must by now have proved himself. Time has now run out for players and teams, as each country would have had to name their final 15 by December 31 — the deadline set by the ICC.

Since 1975, New Zealand has had a proud and successful World Cup record. We have appeared in four previous semi-finals and one quarterfinal. Every nation’s goal of course is to make it to the 2003 final at Johannesburg on March 23. Once a team reaches the final, then anything can happen on the day.

It may be a very optimistic view to think that New Zealand can win the World Cup but I am happy to say against the odds, I predicted Sri Lanka would win the 1996 tournament.

If world ratings are anything to go by, the likely contenders for the World Cup are Australia and South Africa. Australia are a class act and South Africa with home advantage and some convincing recent home form against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, suggest they are both fancied teams.

India’s prospects in the World Cup have been dampened by their indifferent form in New Zealand.

Morale and confidence will be low as they head into a tournament when teams need to be on a high.

They have struggled on bouncy pitches and I suspect the South African pitches will be a big test for their batsmen as well.

There will be pressure on Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag to perform — obviously they will need to score the bulk of the runs. I have been impressed with the bowling performances of Srinath and Zaheer Khan but they will need a lot of support from other bowlers and India will need to be very good in the field if they want to be competitive.

But they are in a tough group with England, Australia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe with two teams missing the Super Six cut. Unless there is a dramatic reversal of form, I fear that India may be departing the tournament early!

New Zealand’s world rating of 8th is disappointing but if we can put together a series of wins as we did in the 1992 World Cup, we will at least be very competitive. During that tournament New Zealand won seven matches in a row, only to bow out of the semi-final, yet again.

The big problem for New Zealand is that we are a very inconsistent team. We tend to win a match well, lose three, win two and lose four — statistics show that over the last five years, the Black Caps win only 36 per cent of one-day matches. New Zealand win more at home than overseas — only 27 per cent of wins have come overseas, which is a frightening figure when trying to convince everyone that New Zealand has a realistic chance of being crowned world champions.

The first goal for New Zealand is to qualify for the Super Six round. In order to do that, the Black Caps need to beat at least one of the other top three teams in our group, either Sri Lanka, South Africa or the West Indies. One of those teams will miss the Super Six, assuming that Canada, Kenya or Bangladesh do not cause an upset and beat a top rated team in the same group.

Kenya did knock over the West Indies and Bangladesh defeated Pakistan in previous World Cups. One of the minnows of world cricket is likely to cause an upset at some stage during this tournament, but the question is which prize scalp will it be in either of the two groups?

New Zealand’s first game is against Sri Lanka at Bloemfontein followed by the West Indies at Port Elizabeth. It is therefore vital that the Black Caps win at least one of those two games because the next match is at altitude in Johannesburg against South Africa.

The South Africans have been our nemesis for many years — for some unknown reason they beat us game after game. Perhaps it is time for New Zealand to reverse the result when it really matters! New Zealand’s chances rest on three important factors — all the top players being fit, the experienced and senior players performing, and the degree of belief necessary to go all the way.

The return of Chris Cairns to the team has been welcomed. He is a match-winner with the bat and the ball and is regarded by all opposing teams as a key player. It is hoped that he has recovered sufficiently from his knee injury that will allow him to take a full and active part in the World Cup as an all-rounder, although at present he is playing as specialist batsman.

Nathan Astle, who averages 56 with the bat at home, will be very keen to improve his overseas batting average of 27 — if Astle scores runs, the team invariably wins. Shane Bond’s pace in South African conditions will be a key weapon for Stephen Fleming to use to break partnerships. There will be enough other multi-skilled players in the team to provide balance and give the captain plenty of options to work with.

The Black Caps’ planning, organisation, and experimentation has gone on for the last three years and the players have now been given an opportunity to step up and achieve something special that only comes around once or twice in a career. Winning the series against India has been vital and has surely done wonders for their self-belief.

First Published: Jan 12, 2003 23:30 IST