New Zealand's Neverland, Where Anything Is Possible

29/03/2015 8:46 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
New Zealand’s Martin Guptill, second left, is congratulated by teammates after taking a catch to dismiss South Africa's Rilee Rossouw during their Cricket World Cup semifinal in Auckland, New Zealand, Tuesday, March 24, 2015. (AP Photo/David Rowland)

This article is from Wisden India.

Wisden India

By Dileep Premachandran

Jonah Lomu. Sean Fitzpatrick. Richie McCaw. Colin Meads. Dan Carter. These All Black legends, two of whom - McCaw and Carter - are still playing, have a special, exalted place in New Zealand sport. In a country obsessed with the oval ball, cricketers have rarely enjoyed the same kind of status. But over the past six weeks, as eight straight wins - including a thrilling one-wicket triumph over Australia at Eden Park - have taken New Zealand's cricketers where they've never gone before, perceptions have shifted just a little.

"It's a pretty amazing ride," said Brendon McCullum, the captain, when asked about the nationwide support usually reserved for the rugby heroes. "The guys have been great about it as well. We know when the World Cup is over, we'll sort of return a little bit to where things were. But at the moment, we'll just try to embrace the fan following and what we've been able to achieve for New Zealand.

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"I think it's captivated the country back home. We've felt the support all the way through. Even in Melbourne, we're feeling the support of the people back home. For us to be talked about and followed in the same breath as some of the great All Black teams, it's immensely satisfying. But we know we've got to continue to build on that too. We're thankful for what we've been able to achieve and the support that we've had, but it would be nice to go and win another game."

After six semifinal defeats, this is New Zealand's first final. In South Africa's case, failure to cross the penultimate hurdle has always been seen as a sign of their mental frailty. With New Zealand, there's usually been a patronising attitude, as though the semifinals were the summit for an underdog side.

This team, though, has systematically mauled its opponents, whether that be Sri Lanka and Australia in the group stage or South Africa in the semifinals. In two previous semifinals (2007 and 2011), McCullum had made a first-ball duck and a 21-ball 13, both against Sri Lanka. At Eden Park, his 26-ball 59 gave New Zealand immediate impetus as they set about pulling off one of the great run chases in the 50-over game's history.

"It's been the greatest time of our lives," said McCullum. "It's been an amazing trip. We dreamed right from the start. To now give ourselves a 50-50 chance in the final is an amazing achievement. We've had some tremendous support back home, and also from around the world as well.

"I think the brand of cricket that we've played has really touched a lot of people, and endeared ourselves to a lot of people who follow this game. We've got one more big hurdle tomorrow. We'll give it everything we've possibly got. Hopefully, if we play well, we'll be smiling at the end of the day and be able to look back on a fantastic campaign and something which would invigorate the game and New Zealand."

It was just over two years ago that New Zealand were bowled out for 45 in a Newlands Test, less than 18 months since they lost an ODI series 3-0 in Bangladesh. "It wasn't so long ago that we weren't in a great space in international cricket," said McCullum. "I guess we went through some pretty tough times and that led us to strip things right back and be totally honest about where we sit in the international game, and how we were viewed, not just within New Zealand but also externally.

"We're all on the same bus heading in the same direction, and that allows us to be rather instinctive on the field and pretty brave as well. It won't stop at the end of the World Cup. We've still got a lot of hard work to do to achieve what we want in this game, and where we want to stand in international cricket, but we've made a good start.

"Hopefully the big fella upstairs shines on us when the pressure situations come into play."

"I look back on the 45 all out, and I wouldn't have changed it. It's allowed us to get where we're at in the game at the moment. It's allowed us to refocus on what's important to us, and to develop not just as cricketers but people as well. What they enjoy most about this current team is we have humble guys who are trying their absolute best to represent a country and play an attacking brand of cricket."

McCullum was asked about a conversation on the flight over from Auckland, where he told a teammate that "nothing is too difficult". "I think I was trying to organise golf," he said with a laugh when it was suggested that it had become the team's mantra. "There is no challenge which is insurmountable. You're able to play a brand of cricket that gives you your greatest chance, and that's what we've had throughout this World Cup. We've built over a period of time.

"Again, it doesn't guarantee you success, but it gives you the greatest chance. I know tomorrow we'll still remain authentic to how we play. We'll play an aggressive brand of cricket with bat and ball in the field. We'll play with the humility we've played with throughout this campaign as well. And hopefully the big fella upstairs shines on us when the pressure situations come into play."

The blueprint for that brave cricket was first drawn up in 1992, when New Zealand topped the nine-team table and got into a winning position in the semifinal before Inzamam-ul-Haq's magnificent 37-ball 60 took the game away. Martin Crowe, the captain of that side who's now dealing with a terminal illness, wrote an emotional column this weekend, where he spoke of a couple of the players being the sons he never had, and how this might be the last game he gets to watch.

"I read the article," said a visibly moved McCullum. "I think he's a fantastic writer. I think what he's going through at the moment is incredibly difficult. We had him involved in the group, and not long ago he came and spent time with the team. It was great. He seems to have really found peace with himself and the game as well.

"He's been instrumental in helping some of our guys on the team peel back their games, and really focus on being able to develop individually but also buy into the team collectively. It's really sad what he's going through, and we just hope that he's able to find some peace in the time that he's got left."

More than a century ago, a Scot named JM Barrie created Peter Pan, and a fantasy setting called Neverland. After decades of being the team that could go only so far and no further, the example set by McCullum - whose middle name is Barrie - has taken the Black Caps to a Neverland-like place where anything is possible. Crowe, an entire nation, and millions of cricket-lovers around the world will hope that the fairy-tale has one final chapter.

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