March 28, 2011

Scrappers, not LOSERS!

Daniel Vettori, bespectacled, more studious in appearance than sporting, seems like the sort of man and captain who has his heart in the right place. And it did not therefore seem like an exaggeration when he said, after the attrition-filled Quarter Finals victory over the Proteas, that a sixth semi-final berth at the cricket World Cup was an "amazing achievement" for a small country like New Zealand. You weigh those words in the context of where New Zealand cricket seemed to be headed a few months before the World Cup and they seem to acquire even more significance. And yet, New Zealand's being in the final four of the 2011 World Cup would surprise few who have followed the Black Caps' cricket with anything more than cursory attention. In a sport played by teams that usually boast two or three very good names, if not great ones, on whose reputations alone games sometimes sway, the Kiwis have always represented a study in the theorem "a team is more than a sum of its parts." How else can one vindicate the almost invisible consistency New Zealand, a team of batsmen who seem to bat to kill boredom and bowlers who (with the notable exceptions of Shane Bond, Sir Richard Hadlee and Chris Cairns in his prime) have at best bowled at medium pace, has maintained in major ICC tournaments?

My earliest memory of the New Zealand cricket team goes back to a pre-dawn telecast in Chennai of a cricket match between a team in yellow flannels (Australia, of course) and another in bright grey way back in 1992. On the day, the captain of the team dressed in grey, which I later learned was New Zealand, Martin Crowe, smashed a ton, giving Kiwis a victory over Australia in the inaugural contest of the Benson and Hedges World Cup. I recall that New Zealand were incredibly consistent during the league stages and played some thrilling and innovative cricket, with Mark Greatbatch heralding pinch-hitting in the first fifteen overs (before Sanath Jayasurya and Kaluwithara poached the badge in the 1996 World Cup!) and Dipak Patel opening the bowling consistently, the very first example of an international outfit starting with spin in one-day cricket on a consistent basis. New Zealand would bow out in their semi-finals clash against the eventual champions Pakistan but they had done much better than co-hosts Australia in the only World Cup to have been played in the region so far. That was the beginning of something remarkable from a team which has fielded men with normal skill but extraordinary well.

Almost two decades have gone by since the last World Cup Downunder and if anything New Zealand's share of match winners has only dwindled during the time. For a long time, the likes of Chris Cairns and Nathan Astle could lock horns with the best in terms of all-round abilities and batting respectively and come out on top. With a steady-minded, but not flashy, captain in Stephen Fleming and sparkling, but never consistent, performers like Craig McMillan and fill-in men like Chris Harris, Gavin Larson and Dion Nash, New Zealand still kept their place in world cricket there or thereabouts. Although one should not be too unfair to the names above, none of them, it seems fair to say, elicited the awe of a Tendulkar, the raptures a Brian Lara left, the stupefaction a Shane Warne commanded, the thrill an Alan Donald delivery triggered or the feeling of disbelief a Gilchrist innings left as residue among spectators and opposition alike.

Given that background, it is all the more creditable that the New Zealand team has hardly been trounced abroad (until recently), has been more than steady at home (once again until lately) with its persistent swing bowlers doing the job and has won a Champions Trophy. In fact, tomorrow's clash against Sri Lanka will be the Kiwis' fourth in a row at the World Cup after 1999, 2003 and 2007. No team other than the decade's best team, Australia, has even come close. You can have all the money in the world to get the best support staff and equipment for analysis (read 'India'); you can have the finest talent bursting at the seams on paper (read 'India', 'Sri Lanka', 'South Africa' and bowling talent in 'Pakistan'). But the great beauty of sport lies in its sleepy disinterestedness in history, records and the like and its knack of evening competitors on the day. It it in this connection that the Kiwi endurance in cricket tells its own unique story; not too attractive, but quite inspiring. 

Even as I was trying to find out how many World Cup semi-finals the Kiwis have reached before, I was surprised to find out that the one they play against South Africa tomorrow will be their fourth in a row. But even with New Zealand's blue-collared approach to the game, the slipping of some of their fine performances under the radar says a lot about the powerhouses of cricket (and their parochial aggrandisement of achievements by their players matched only by their humungous blind eye towards others' achievements) and how New Zealand has, like a wicket keeper who does his job so efficiently that he does not even seem to be physically present on the field, gone about its cricket with focus and without fanfare. Nowhere was New Zealand's taciturn efficiency more visible than their Quarter Final win over South Africa recently. If the Proteas' mid-innings pandemonium that eventually led to their loss was a typical South Africa reminding them of their psychologically brittle days, the Kiwis' resilience to shut the door and turn the key was also typical New Zealand - scrapping but stubborn. The signs had been there even when Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor, both men of belligerent ways, settled on more workmanlike ways of run scoring. In the end, the two batsmen's vigil counted in the final analysis as much as Oram's brilliance with the ball and Nathan McCullum's on the field. 

The New Zealand cricket team, which has never been large on ego, had stooped when it had to and conquerred the occasion when the opportunity presented itself. Here was a team that journalists targeted for having a soft underbelly, people teased and tauinted randomly on FB and twitter and the world at large seemed to have forgotten as a prospect worth reckoning in the World Cup. Here was a team that lost 4-0 to Bangladesh and followed it up with a 5-0 mauling at the hands of India in games that were intended to be prelude to the World Cup. Here is the only non-Asian team that has qualified to the pre-summit clash of the 2011 World Cup!

There was a muttering in some circles following the 5-0 defeat in India that the Kiwis did not bat long enough and John Wright, a man who knows more about "long batting" than most was appointed the national coach; Allan Donald took on the reins of the bowling which was never going to be Goliath slayers but which could with some aggression, in the words of White Lightning himself, go a long way. And the change in personnel seems to have worked like a charm. It needs to be kept in mind that a team's skipper and support staff are only as good as the on-field outputs and not efforts: but that is modern sport and harshness is its other name. Irrespective of what happens tomorrow, the Black Caps will be a happy lot.

The Kiwi vice-Captain Ross Taylor strongly believes that his team can reach the finals. Sri Lanka, with a ten wicket thumping of England under their belt and the chafing home conditions at the backdrop, may represent an altogether different proposition vis-a-vis South Africa with a known disposition to crumble under pressure. But the Kiwis will go into the match knowing that they have nothing to lose. Oftentimes, those without fear of defeat are like killers on the run: they can rubbish the odds, mutter a profanity and do something that defies credulity. Much of New Zealand cricket has been about de(i)fying commonsense and if it takes them all the way, few can grudge them the achievement.

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