Cape Town - New Zealand has a population of five million and India has a population of 1.33 billion. According to a government survey, more than six million play cricket in India, while there are 170 000 registered cricketers at every level in New Zealand.
Yet, it is New Zealand’s national cricket team who will play Australia in the T20 World Cup final and it is New Zealand, who in the past three years have beaten India in the ODI World Cup, the final of the Test match championship and in the league stages of the current edition of the T20.
New Zealand’s Black Caps have been notorious for their fighting spirit and despite successes in the past, they’ve never quite got the acknowledgement of being a damn fine cricket side.
Currently, they are more than a damn fine side, and former England cricketer-turned-analyst Michael Vaughan lauded the New Zealanders as the most complete ‘all-three format’ international cricketing team.
The Black Caps have also been described as the most likeable international team and the good guys of international cricket, with the side being led by the popular Kane Williamson.
South African-born and raised top order batsman Devon Conway has been influential in all three formats since his international debut two years ago, but the fiery batter will miss the final because of a broken hand, suffered when he slammed his fist into his bat on getting out for 46 in the semi-final.
Several South African-born cricketers have contributed to New Zealand’s success, notably fast bowler Neil Wagner at Test level and the recently retired wicket-keeping all-rounder BJ Watling.
The Phillips brothers, Glenn and Dale, were also born in South Africa, but were pups when their families relocated to New Zealand and they are very much a product of New Zealand’s development cricketing programmes, from school level upwards.
The Black Caps have traditionally fought a bigger battle within New Zealand for recognition and have always lived in the shadow of the country’s most famous sporting brand, the All Blacks.
But in the past few years, the Black Caps have been top of mind because of sustained excellence and incredible results in the biggest tournaments and right now they are more popular in New Zealand than the All Blacks.
There was a time when the Black Caps were viewed as a bunch of nice guys who punched above their weight, but as Vaughan says to group them merely as cricketers who fight to the end would be to insult them because the reality is that they have earned the right to be considered the best and that, as a collective, they reinforce a cricketing truth that the eleven best seldom beat the best eleven.
If, for example, you took the Indian starting XI and compared them to the Black Caps starting XI, Williamson would always make the composite side, but it would be a struggle for any of the other New Zealanders to convince neutrals of selection.
But when you put those 11 Kiwis together and they take the field as the Black Caps, the collective of these 11 and their combined skills, tellingly have the beating of those glamour sides who feature some of the greatest individuals to play the game.
“I think the never-say-die attitude is what we pride ourselves on and take things, bigger teams right down to the wire and then it is who can hold their nerve the best as well in the most pressurised situation,” said Black Caps coach Gary Stead after the T20 semi-final win against one of the tournament favourites England. “I think it is really exciting for this team to be in this situation again. We have played some wonderful cricket in the last four-five years and I guess people measure that success at World Cups. So, for us, to be in another final is really satisfying and rewarding for the team.”
Williamson’s batting will also be vital to the well-being of the Black Caps but time and again the New Zealanders have shown that they are no one-person team and that their collective is their strength.
Stead stresses that many different players, at different stages of the competition, have produced big performances.
It was the same in the Test World Championship final, when the Black Caps beat India.
In 2019, when the Black Caps were rampant in the ODI World Cup, allrounder Mitch Santner spoke of the Black Caps’ collective skills.
“We haven’t relied on a few guys to do the bulk of the work. You want everyone to step up at different times throughout the tournament, and I think that’s what we have found so far. You look at our side as a whole, we’re quite a scrappy side and we pride ourselves on winning those little moments, like I guess we have been, and saying that, we could have been on the other end of a couple of those games.”
Fast forward to the 2021 T20 World Cup final and the storyline is familiar. The Black Caps are popular, winning and doing so with humility and class.
What is different is that while they may still sell themselves short in how they describe themselves, neutrals of the game certainly aren’t anymore.