New Zealand have always been the also-rans of world cricket. A remote cluster of islands, they have been the eternal bit players in a game lorded over by the West Indies, Australia, and then India.
But the World Cup 2015 was touted to be a little different. The Kiwis were going to be the team to beat, said everyone, on the basis of their form just prior to the tournament.
As it turns out, they have been correct. So far.
The man who presently epitomises the New Zealanders’ desire to make this one count is their captain, Brendon McCullum.
He is their warrior prince, a fighter who will swing the bat like a broadsword to decimate the enemy, lead his men from the front in every battle, and emerge victorious.
They have had batsmen before, but not one of them captures the imagination like he does. A fine wicketkeeper, off late McCullum has also shown tremendous skills as an outfielder and he hammers any attack with impunity and with his lead the New Zealand side has the best opportunity to write their name on the trophy.
Just before the World Cup, Sri Lanka played a series in New Zealand and got to find out first-hand how good the Kiwis were at home.
So when the World Cup began, New Zealand were always a side that would be expected to stand up and be counted, since they have been on the fringes for too long.
So they continued to put it past Sri Lanka, scoring 300-plus and winning by 98 runs. Everyone in the know of the tournament paused to take a closer look at New Zealand.
It is said that a captain is as good as his team. That may be, but there are instances where the skipper has been decisive and has made moves that have tilted games in his favour.
Take the example of the match with Australia at Auckland. Aussie openers David Warner and Aaron Finch were threatening to run away with the match, having hammered 24 runs in the first two overs. So he took a gamble and brought on Daniel Vettori, an extremely brave move indeed, with the Australians in such attacking mood and the power play overs on.
Turned out to be a great move. Vettori put immediate brakes on the scoring rate and Trent Boult found a perfect line and length as Australia, incredibly, collapsed for 151 runs!
Needs a man of vision and courage to do this.
If there is a weak side, it is the New Zealand batting’s disturbing tendency to cave in when least warranted. They beat totally unrated Scotland by just three wickets while chasing only 142 runs. Against Australia, they lost nine wickets before overtaking 151.
But all that looks like a remote possibility when McCullum is at the crease. His tactics are simple– attack.
He has taken every bowler he has faced to task. In no uncertain terms and with such regularity that he has become consistently the best opener in this World Cup.
With Shane Bond at the helm of the bowling, the attack is fiery. Tim Southee has found a second wind, Boult and Adam Milne have hit the 150-mark with regularity while Corey Anderson hasn’t really been tested.
Then there is Vettori. He was, for a long time, the best left-arm spinner from an ilk that is disappearing rapidly. Though he has been overtaken by Shakib al-Hasan in recent times, his return to the NZ scheme of things has been pretty optimistic. This is his last World Cup, and he would definitely love to sign off on a high.
Kyle Mills and Mitchell McClenaghan stand ready for action.
Given the format of the tournament, where four teams from each group make the quarter-finals, neither New Zealand nor Australia would be too worried about the outcome of how their match ended. Both sides will qualify.
But New Zealand will finish on top of the Group A, giving them the best opportunity to make it to the final, since they will be facing some pretty shaky team when the quarter-final line-up is decided.
Even there, it will be McCullum who will lead the charge. He bats like a man possessed, will not give up even half a run if he can help it in the field and will exhort his bowlers to run through the rivals like a hot knife through butter.
The only thing he needs to address is to stay at the crease a little longer. His side will become unbeatable. For, if Brendon McCullum decides to play all 50 overs, or even 30, the opposition will be in serious trouble indeed.
New Zealand have always been an enigma in world cricket. Maybe its time to unravel the mystery.