New Zealand’s rise to cricketing eminence in the last decade makes for one of the more remarkable stories in sport. For a small nation with paltry financial resources for cricket and a modest talent pool, the trajectory has zoomed spectacularly skywards, and in every format.
In three successive ICC World Cups – 2015 and 2019 ODIs and 2021 T20 – they have been losing finalists. If this seems to fit the “chokers” label, let’s remember that in the 2019 ODI World Cup they were robbed of the title by an asinine tournament rule.
Winning the inaugural World Test Championship puts their present cricket prowess in perspective. Somewhat lucky to be in the final because Australia had forfeited priceless points by refusing to tour South Africa, the Kiwis showed themselves to be deserving winners, outclassing favourites India in a taut Test in England earlier this year.
Since their entry in 1930 as a full cricket nation, New Zealand, for the better part of four decades subsequently, were a low to middling side best remembered in those years for being bundled out for an ignominious 26 against England at Auckland in 1955, which is still the lowest Test score ever.
New Zealand’s cricket connections with India till the 1970s were few and far in between, but interesting all the same. In 1955-56, Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy put up a world record first wicket partnership of 413 against them at Madras which was to stand for 52 years.
In 1968, India’s first overseas Test and series win came in New Zealand, Tiger Pataudi leading his team to a resounding 3-1 win.
The Kiwis, however, became a pitfall for Pataudi the following season, 1969-70. This was a home series. India won the first Test handsomely at Bombay, lost the second badly at Nagpur and were in dire straits at Hyderabad before rain came to the rescue.
The drawn rubber could not salvage Pataudi’s falling stock. Shoddy performances as well as allegations of indiscipline against him and some players created a furore. The controversy snowballed into then chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant using his casting vote to depose Pataudi from the captaincy for the tour of the West Indies in 1970-71, a major inflection point in Indian cricket history.
Till the last decade, the Kiwis were considered poor cousins of Australian and England players by Indian fans. Aussies were foul-mouthed bullies, English snooty, manipulative and patronizing but both enjoyed big star billing. New Zealand cricketers came across as earnest on the field, genial off it. Sometimes startlingly so.
In 1988 when New Zealand were in India, I interviewed captain John Wright in his hotel room in Bombay. Before we got started, he asked me to relax, pulled out his guitar and strummed a few songs, promising another music session if I desired during the series. Mind you, Wright was a fierce competitor and hard taskmaster, as we know from his tenure as Indian coach subsequently.
I am loath to give a blanket certificate of stereotyped goodness. There are all kinds everywhere. Some Indian players who toured New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s complained of racist comments made by Kiwi players. In more recent times, a few New Zealanders were sucked into sordid match-fixing episodes.
Some outstanding cricketers have come from the country since the 1950s. In the 1980s, when I started writing on cricket, Richard Hadlee’s peerless skills as a fast bowler and Martin Crowe’s dazzling ability as batsman helped the team reach the upper echelons of the sport, though not as consistently as in the last 10-12 years.
This has been a defining period for New Zealand cricket, made more fascinating by the fact that it stemmed from a serious crisis when the Board went more or less bankrupt and several players defected to the outlawed Indian Cricket League. Cricket, never the most popular sport in the country, looked ready to be buried.
Resurrection has come through astute management of growth and sustenance of the game at the grassroots level, and through the strong leadership of Stephen Fleming, Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson, who have shown great commitment to excellence. To win consistently requires fierce ambition and competitive urges which can throw players/teams off track.
But New Zealand, more than any other team, have lived up to the “Spirit of Cricket” ideal, taking success and failure with equanimity and maturity. Had there been any other side to have lost the 2019 ODI World Cup because of a foolish rule, we might have seen the sport splintered.
The power dynamics in cricket have changed in the past few years. It’s no longer the fiefdom of the “Big 3”– India, Australia and England. There’s a fourth power in place. If not in the board rooms, on the field it has made the sport richer in its accomplishments and ethos.