It’s difficult for me to remember a time in my life when the words ‘New Zealand’ and ‘cricketing force’ have been appropriately used on the same sentence. There have been some truly wonderful players, and on occasion, instances of mediocre England sides getting rolled over by the brilliance of Stephen Fleming, Chris Cairns, or even Dion Nash.
However, not since before I was born have they genuinely struck fear into the hearts of world class opponents. They have won just one Test series against England since 1987, beating Nasser Hussain’s side 2-1 thanks to 19 wickets from Cairns and no England batsman making a century (Alex Tudor came closest, stranded on 99*).
Now the six-time semi-finalists (and zero-time finalists) have a World Cup partially on home soil, and they have a side brimming with talent and hope.
This didn’t happen overnight though, nor is simply a white-ball revolution. This New Zealand is so much more.
Go back a little more than a year. New Zealand are preparing for the visit of the West Indies, against whom they will play three Tests, 5 ODIs, and 2 T20Is.
Ross Taylor, perhaps the most talented batsman the country has seen since Fleming, is battling with demons inside and out: sacked as captain in a storm of controversy, isolated within his own team, and over a year without a Test match hundred. He couldn’t socialise, he couldn’t sleep, and he couldn’t buy a run.
He rang his long-time mentor and former NZ cricketer Martin Crowe, desperate for some advice about how to wind down, and more simply how to sleep.
“I asked him to slowly explain a typical night before an important match,” Crowe writes. “I repeated it back to him. He realised he had stopped living a normal life.
“While away overseas on tour, he was living a cricketing nightmare. In other words, his nights were spent fretting on what he thought he was the only thing he had left in the game – his batting. He had forgotten about himself.”
And in some ways so had the whole team. They had won just one of the last 13 Test, the one win coming when Taylor scored a hundred in Colombo. It wasn’t confined to red-ball cricket either; they had suffered the ignominy of a 3-0 whitewash at the hands of Bangladesh, culminating in failing to defend 307 in Dhaka. That time a Taylor hundred was in vain, and felt worthless.
Crowe offered the stricken Taylor some advice, encouraging him to avoid cricket at all costs once the team left the ground, recharging between days of play, with a glass of red wine, or good food, letting the stresses of Test cricket ebb away into the evening.
He texted Crowe the night before that first Test match of the 2013/14 summer saying he was having dinner and a glass of wine with some friends. Crowe smiled, and wondered if he was on the verge of something special.
Taylor was, as were New Zealand. He made 217 unbeaten runs, and although they would draw that Test in Dunedin, they won the next two, and Taylor scored a hundred in each.
It triggered a run in which they have lost only two of their last Test matches, and the form has translated directly into ODIs.
They drew 2-2 with the West Indies after the Test series, before beating the World Champions India 4-0 (back-to-back hundreds from Taylor). Since that night when Taylor rang Crowe, NZ have a 17-6 record in ODIs.
They don’t rely on Taylor either. His best friend Martin Guptill has proved to be a more than capable opening partner for Brendan McCullum, who has finally accepted that a man of his ability has to open the batting in the short form. Kane Williamson at three now averages over 45 in ODIs and Test matches, and Grant Elliott and former Australian Luke Ronchi recently produced a ODI record 267-run stand for the sixth wicket.
With the ball, it must be said, NZ look at times vulnerable. The recall of Daniel Vettori tells of their inability to find a suitable spinner (Adam Milne doesn’t look ready), but a mixture of Mitchell McClenaghan, the effervescent Trent Boult, and some overs from Elliott and Corey Anderson may be enough to defend some of the scoreboard pressure created by their explosive batting lineup.
On Valentine’s Day, they will open the World Cup at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch. If NZ fans want to help out on Friday 13, I recommend finding Ross Taylor and making sure he’s having the nicest evening possible. If he sleeps easy, then you might just find that the hosts make that elusive final at last.
[Featured image courtesy of Michael McGimpsey via Flickr. In-text image courtesy of Getty Images. Infographic made by me. Yes indeed ladies and gentlemen.]