ONEAt this point, the most surprising thing about New Zealand getting to the T20 World Cup final is that someone is still surprised by it at all. This is the team that reached the final of the World Cup 2015, the final of the World Cup 2019 (which they obviously lost due to a clause in small print), which won the first world championship in testing, and which is currently ranked as the best side in the world in test and ODI cricket. For the past five years, they have been the best and most effective team in all formats in the sport. And yet, flick three weeks back to the previews of the tournament and you will find that they were sixth in the bet.
India were favorites, then England, Pakistan, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Given the way we all talk about them, “and New Zealand” is perhaps what they should rename since. Always an afterthought, everyone else’s favorites. The New Zealanders are probably very happy with that. There used to be a theory back in the 2000s where the All Blacks always blew the air in the knockout rounds of the Rugby World Cup that the team could not handle the pressure that came with being favorites. It’s not a problem that the Black Caps have had to worry about, even while beating everyone else so often.
Not only have they transformed themselves into the best team in the world, they have somehow done it without anyone else really noticing that it happened. They are carefully camouflaged, a ruthlessly efficient team that disguises itself as a miserable herd of underdogs from the world’s mountain ranges. They are a World XI that looks like they are Ilford Seconds. Therefore, there is a valuable point in asking them exactly how they have gone with this transformation (I have tried repeatedly) because a proper answer would blow their coverage and sound uncomfortable as bragging.
If you ask their senior players, they will talk about team culture, about a set of values shaped by Brendon McCullum when he was captain. They will mention the strength of their domestic set-up and the quality of the courses they play on, and at the end of it you will be left with no real idea of how a country, which according to the board’s latest reports only has 68,383 registered players and about half as much money as Virat Kohli owns, has proven to be a team that can consistently beat the bigger and better resources. You would have been more fortunate to ask Arkle to explain why he can run so fast.
From this distance, it seems that at least half of these 68,383 are apparently capable of hitting a pair of sixes and bowling a time or two, another quarter of them can also hold the wicket, a large portion of the rest of The bowl swings and seams at about 85 mph. , and the other is Kane Williamson. This is a team that has played Daryl Mitchell, a guy who has never opened in professional cricket, at the top of the ranks, who lost a fast bowler, Lockie Ferguson, and was able to replace him with another in Adam Milne as they left a third, Kyle Jamieson, on the bench. They could not even fit Finn Allen, Ross Taylor and Colin de Grandhomme into the squad.
New Zealand, which has one of the smallest pools of professional players in the World Cup, still has enviable strength in depth. And they need it now that Devon Conway had to pull out of the final because he broke his hand when he hit his bat after he smoked out against England the other night (“It’s not the smartest thing he ever did, “said head coach Gary Stead). Conway is a big loss at a bad time.
Because of course one thing is missing in this picture. As Jimmy Neesham said when asked why he refused to celebrate after the team won their semi-final, “The task is not over yet”. New Zealand may have won the world championship in tests, but they have never won an international tournament in white ball cricket. And if that was not already enough pressure, it should be Australia that is in the way again this time. This is, to use the new cliché, not a “match-up” that suits them very much. The New Zealand government’s own history website describes the rivalry with Australia as one with “an older sibling who has not always taken us seriously”.
The Australians waited 16 years before playing New Zealand in a one-off test, beating them by an innings and 103 runs in a day and a half, and then refused (come back when you have grown up) to play them again for another 27 several years. In total, New Zealand have played against Australia 212 times across the three formats, beating them at just 51, which is their worst win / loss record against any team in international cricket. Nor has it been much better in the last five years, with Australia beating them in five out of five tests, six out of 11 ODIs and five out of nine T20s. The last time they met in a final, in the 50-over World Cup in 2015, Australia marmalade them.
This is a match where it does not seem to pay off to play underdog. Which is perhaps why it’s time for New Zealand to admit that given all the other things they’ve achieved recently, they should be the favorites to win it.