The Kiwis have always been an overperforming team at World Cups, a sort of polar opposite of South African teams over the years. They have consistently reached the last 4, against the run of play and form, pulling off upsets consistently. 1999, 2007 and 2011 come to mind, but for the first time since 1992, the New Zealand cricket team will enter a World Cup as one of the favorites. The underdog favorites, perhaps, but definitely not the darkest of horses.
The Black Caps need to be feared, not only because they’re playing in familiar conditions and green tops at home, but because they’ve pulled off one of the greatest 18-month turnarounds for a single cricket team in recent times. 18 months ago, they were bowled out for 45 by the Proteas. Brendon McCullum took charge, and almost instantaneously, the results began to trickle in. 2014 has been watershed year for NZ cricket: McCullum became the first-ever NZ batsman to score over 1000 test runs in a year, the team has won 5 tests (a new record), and they probably have the best young bowling line-up in world cricket. ODI cricket aside, this NZ side has proven that they are contenders.
They began the year with an upset 1-0 win against overseas whipping boys India at home over two tests. This will chiefly be remembered for McCullum’s absolute dominance as a batsman—a double century in the first test and a TRIPLE century, NZ’s first in test history, in the second test to save his team after finding themselves more than 300 runs behind in the second innings. This was a defining innings, a signature and almighty stamp, a call for arrival of the most swashbuckling keeper-batsman since Gilchrist.
The tone was set. NZ visited West Indies, and won the series 2-1, as they were expected to. They’ve never been good travellers, but here they showed character and fought back to claim a satisfying series victory, a rare one at that.
The defining tour of the year came when NZ visited UAE to play Pakistan, lost the first test miserably, and were hit by the death of Phil Hughes a day into the third test. Pakistan had dominated that day, but after that, magic happened. McCullum destroyed a strong Pakistani attack, and outplayed the team for 4 days, winning their first test against them in decades. The series was drawn 1-1. Bolt and Southee formed the most destructive two-pronged pace attack of the year in tests. This brave test form was followed by a 1-1 T20 fightback, and a stunning 3-2 ODI series victory, after being 1-2 down in the series. It is here that youngsters like Kane Williamson, who is now a world-class batsman and shrewd ODI captain, Adam Milne (a quickie in the folds of Shane Bond), Henry, McClenaghan and Devcich have stood up, forming the most balanced bowling side in ODI cricket. Williamson and Taylor have filled the middle order with runs, while Vettori and McCullum have kept the runs down with their middle overs.
NZ have now won the first test against Sri Lanka, another poor traveling team, with McCullum almost scoring the fastest double of all time, eventually fading for 195 crazy runs. SL followed on, fought bravely, but the likes of Boult and Southee bowled 38 overs each, showing will and an insane level of fitness and mental fortitude to squeeze out another impressive win.
Test wins against India, West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in a single year, including one in the sub-continent, are achievements that even Australia and South Africa struggle to achieve. This isn’t the meek, mild and hopeless NZ team that just filled up the numbers in test cricket for a decade. Vettori led them bravely through their darkest times, with no players at his disposal, but now most of them are punching above their weight, and shocking teams into submission.
New Zealand will be one of the four to make the semis of the upcoming World Cup. The other three could be Australia, South Africa and perhaps India. But this time, in the semis, NZ will be feared. If they beat South Africa like they did in 2011, it won’t be an upset. It will be a job well done.