The hot tips have been coming thick and fast: l’enfant terrible Kevin Pietersen reckons New Zealand will win the 2015 edition of the Cricket World Cup down under. A plethora of players, including horse-lover Ricky Ponting, Fanta-lover Dale Steyn, gel-lover Shane Warne and sunglasses-lover Sachin Tendulkar have tipped them as the surprise package for the tournament. Even Kiwi legends Stephen Fleming and Martin Crowe see New Zealand making the final in their sensible crystal balls. In fact, so many have predicted that the Black Caps are a dark horse for the World Cup, the steed’s spine is in danger of being overloaded. What have they all been drinking, and from where does this tide of optimism stem? It all begins, as so many tales do, with an absolute maelstrom of disaster and distaste. And, it starts at the top. Mike Hesson collected the poisoned chalice that is the national coaching job in July 2012, taking over from John Wright after New Zealand Cricket’s director of cricket at the time, John Buchanan, got his broom out and started sweeping. “[Hesson] will bring a freshness and new energy to the side, and we know he is more than capable of developing and growing the team as we work towards the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015,” Buchanan waffled at the time. Gnashing of teeth began as Hesson was bagged for not having played first-class cricket – how could this bloke have beaten out nigh on 40 applicants? Only hard-out cricket followers knew who Hesson was: he’d coached Argentina, Kenya, New Zealand A, and the local Otago side for yonks.
Hesson defended his corner calmly, despite looking a bit like a possum in the headlights at times, and began the meticulous planning that he saw as critical for success at his all-consuming dream job.
Only a handful of months later, Hesson made a seemingly audacious call in recommending that Ross Taylor – the man he inherited as captain – be removed from his role as skipper in some or all formats, depending on who you believe and what was said and heard.
The machinations were an absolute dog’s breakfast, as claims and counter-claims about what happened in a Sri Lankan hotel room emerged piecemeal through a murky media haze of axes being ground and patches being protected.
The squabbling and kerfuffle was seemingly endless and abysmally handled, but the upshot was the thing – and Brendon McCullum took the reins in all three formats of international cricket in December 2012. Critics laid into Hesson for picking his mate as skipper. But, the coach defended his decision calmly and knuckled down to do his best.
It was a bottom of the barrel time for the game in New Zealand: accusations, name-calling, defamation actions and vested interests. Somewhere among the warring factions, most of us missed that the revolution had begun.
The revolution began with a whimper: an eight-wicket hiding from South Africa in a Twenty20 international on the way to a 2-1 series loss. Then came the catastrophic innings-plus-a-lot obliterations in the two Test matches, including the ignominy of being all out for 45 in 19.2 overs of the first session at Cape Town. As the NZ Herald reported: In the wake of the calamitous 45 all out, McCullum retired to his room, grabbed a beer from the fridge and was soon joined by coach Mike Hesson, assistant coach Bob Carter and manager Mike Sandle. “We looked at each other and sort of went, well, we’ve got that out of the way, let’s strip everything away and start again,” McCullum said. “It might sound presumptuous, but we decided that it wasn’t important how I wanted the team to look, or the way the coach wanted the team to look, it was how New Zealanders wanted us to play…”
The Hesson/McCullum makeover of the Black Caps has been a humble one. Both talk a lot about “team-first”; they talk about the team ethos and the way the team has responded in a situation.
Yes, there are superstars in the team – Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Daniel Vettori and Corey Anderson are some of them, and McCullum is the supernova — yet there are no pedestals. The egos will be there — it is a cricket team after all — but they are in check.
This prohibition on prima donnas has cleared the path for contributions from lesser-known names that have been hugely significant: the grunting and effort balls from left-armer Neil Wagner against India, the guile and gumption of rags to riches spinner Mark Craig, the intransigent batting of BJ Watling at the Basin Reserve, the sticky fingers of Trent Boult, the bullwhip-crack timing of Luke Ronchi.
Thanks to the long shadow of relentless success cast by the world champion All Black rugby team, the New Zealand public has an ingrained expectation of winning: we hate losing, and we hate rich losers more.
As cricketers have ratcheted up their earnings to join the highest earners among the Kiwi sporting ranks, the risk increases that they will be perceived as unpatriotic cricketing vampires who don’t care about playing for New Zealand as much as the previous generations. It’s impossible for that accusation to hold any water in relation to this group of players.
There has also been an obvious focus on making sure the right people are in the squad and around the team. As New Zealanders who are a bit rough around the edges like to say, the GCs (good chaps) only rule has been put in place with a clinical efficiency. That’s meant a calm adieu to risky propositions such as Jesse Ryder.
The result is a team that is in it to win for the team and for New Zealand. Let’s hope this black-capped steed rushes past the MCG grandstand at the World Cup final in late March, sweeping to triumph and living up to its dark horse sobriquet.
Paul Ford is the co-founder of the off-kilter and badly dressed Kiwi cricket supporters outfit and outfitters, the Beige Brigade (beigebrigade.co.nz).