This New Zealand Team Could Go The Distance

20/02/2015 9:15 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
New Zealand’s Tim Southee left, celebrates with teammate Martin Guptill after dismissing England's Chris Woakes during their Cricket World Cup match in Wellington, New Zealand, Friday Feb. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Ross Setford)

One reckons that Brendon McCullum and the Black Caps are going to increase the Gross National Happiness of New Zealand manifold during this World Cup. Their performance against England one Friday was sizzling, exhilarating and destructive -- everything that defines a champion team.

On Friday, England looked as resilient as roasted papadum against a sledgehammer bowler. The batting was destroyed in a remarkable spell of swing bowling by Tim Southee and McCullum then strode out to bat with such brutality that it might have scarred England for the remainder of the tournament.

Indeed, the contest was so lop-sided - and mind you, England are a major cricketing nation not a minnow - that other teams in the tournament, including front runners Australia, South Africa and India will be filled with trepidation about playing New Zealand any time earlier than in the final.

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Of course, Australia are in the same Pool A and have no relief from an earlier encounter in the league phase. This comes about on the last day of this month and is a match everybody is looking forward to with great interest.

The Aussies, also boasting a strong bowling attack, travel across the Tasman Sea to Auckland and one will have a better idea of just how good the New Zealand side really is when they play Michael Clarke's team.

The Australians like to dominate. They sledge, they bully. They also play superb, attacking cricket. Psychologically, the Kiwis have always been underdogs to their bigger cousin in the Trans Tasman battles. Can McCullum and his team hold their nerve in this battle?

Never mind the history, It's a mouth-watering prospect because the Kiwis look in superb form currently and man for man have the resources to match the Aussies if not upstage them.

Playing at home will also be an advantage (remember they play all matches, including the quarter-final in New Zealand) which makes it even difficult for opponents. But in my opinion, that is of secondary importance in assessing New Zealand if their first three matches are any indication.

The three things that stand out about New Zealand's cricket over the past 15-18 months, which they have carried into the World Cup, is in the selection of the squad, the way the players have jelled, and the aggressive approach of captain McCullum.

"This was made possible because the core group of players was identified early and persisted with for a fair period of time irrespective of results."

How important the first aspect becomes clear when you scan the results of the first week in the tournament. Teams like Australia, South Africa, India and New Zealand seem to have the batting and bowling resources to fit multiple game-plans. There is not just talent, but also depth in batting and bowing.

This was made possible because the core group of players was identified early and persisted with for a fair period of time irrespective of results. This has helped these players feel secure and jell with each other.

Look then at the West Indies, England and Pakistan. The West Indies cricket board was at loggerheads with its players, dropped two of the best ODI specialists in Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard and thrust the captaincy on 23-year-old rookie Jason Holder.

Where England are concerned, controversy over Kevin Pietersen has dogged their every step, every match. To make matters worse, the dropping of Alastair Cook was insensibly delayed, leading to Eoin Morgan getting belated charge of the side. There has also been too much experimentation with the batting order.

Pakistan have suffered for a different reason. They lost key players approaching the World Cup - Umar Gul, Junaid Khan, Mohammed Hafeez and Saeed Ajmal. This meant that a few players had to be rushed in for the tournament, leaving the captain still seeking to work out his combinations.

The biggest boon for New Zealand, however, is not just the choice of players and a squad chosen well in time, but the influence wielded by their captain. Putting Brendon McCullum has not just revitalised the side, but made them world beaters if you look at the performances over the past two years across formats.

The magnificent bowling of Tim Southee on Friday was an example of this. The 26-year-old's talent was never in doubt. He has the rare ability to swing the ball late and at high pace. The difference between a fine bowler and a devastating one, however, has to do with self-belief and the faith of his captain.

By the same token, McCullum was also instrumental in getting veteran spinner Daniel Vettori into this campaign. The left-arm spinner had virtually retired. His comeback was not taken kindly by everybody, but McCullum had his strategies worked out.

McCullum has backed his bowlers (all of them) with attacking fields in every situation. He is willing to risk some runs for rewards, as a result of which new Zealand have looked the best bowling side in the tournament yet, South Africa and Australia included.

Beyond just the cricketing skills, I believe McCullum has made his team more focused and more ambitious. On Friday, New Zealand could have coasted to the small target in a stroll; he wanted to finish the match in a rousing gallop to impress on his team that this is how he wants their mental make up to be: they have to think like champions to become champions.

Obviously, sustenance of form and zest is crucial to New Zealand's progress in the tournament. McCullum will remember that the last time the World Cup was played in this hemisphere was in 1992, when too New Zealand had looked to be a team in roaring form and on a mission, till they were unexpectedly felled by Pakistan in the semi-finals.

Given the vagaries and vicissitudes of sport, anything can happen. But so good have the Kiwis looked in their three wins - especially the thumping win over England - the buzz around in cricket circles now is whether they are not the favourites for the title.

Speaking for myself, they are.

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