“The New Zealand team are worthy winners of this award. In the heat of battle, they displayed a level of sportsmanship that was fitting for such a fantastic final, and indeed tournament.”
And, so, the Black Caps were awarded the MCC Spirit of Cricket Award.
I didn’t have a problem with that. But what hurt me, being a fan, were the next few lines said by Kumar Sangakkara while announcing the award.
“It is a testament to their squad that even after a match that will live long in the memory for the cricket that was played, we are still talking about the Spirit of Cricket. Their actions deserve this recognition.”
More often than not the New Zealand team’s recognition has been reduced to them being ‘nice’. Not as ‘great’ or as ‘winners’, but just nice. What is to be blamed is the common notion and a little is the team’s own fault.
For years, the Black Caps were considered the underdogs in major ICC competitions. It took years and two World Cup finals for the team to finally rise above those ranks. And now Kane Williamson’s New Zealand, who have performed consistently across formats over the years, have established a home dominance is comparable to that of India’s. They have been undefeated in their last 11 Test matches at home.
The last Test series that they lost at home was a three-match encounter against South Africa early in 2017. And, believe me when I say, it wasn’t a series that New Zealand would’ve lost. While the visitors did dominate the second game, after the first one ended in a draw, the hosts broke South Africa in just one innings in the decider in Hamilton, but unfortunately for them, they never got to taste victory and draw the series due to rain washing out the entire play on Day 5.
So if we really had to really look at the last time that New Zealand were completely dominated at home was when Australia toured their neighbours in early 2016. It’s Australia once again and the Kiwis will meet them at the former’s home. And people might think that New Zealand is a better team now. And, frankly, they are. But what’s going to trouble them is their away record.
The India, South Africa outings for New Zealand in 2016 must remind us of how the team has fallen behind when playing overseas. The team, as visitors, didn’t stand a chance against the strong hosts and that showed why New Zealand has only won one overseas series since 2014 - the one against West Indies. And one of the biggest battles lost away from home was the one in their trans-Tasman rivalry that was four years back. But that was the Baz era. Yes, New Zealand had already featured in their first-ever World Cup Final by then. However, the unit wasn’t as strong as it is now. How the same players have evolved, how the new ones have settled in and made the setup a stable one: these are the things that make New Zealand, currently ranked second in Test cricket, a balanced side.
Even when the big guns, Ross Taylor or Kane Williamson, have not had their best days, New Zealand have fared pretty well with the others standing up. While the likes of BJ Watling, Tom Latham have only grown to be better over the years, the addition of Colin de Grandhomme, Henry Nicholls have made them a stronger unit. And the bowling unit comprising Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner have done wonders for the team. So what Australia are going to now face is not the one from four years back.
Now it’s up to this complete team to decide whether they want to remain underdogs or push beyond that. It’s time now for them to decide whether to be great or to remain ‘nice’.
New Zealand have the momentum needed to start the upcoming on a high after having defeated England at home in the recently concluded series. They did not get the ICC Test Championship points, nor did they get enough rest before gearing up for the Australian challenge, but it’s here and it’s now that New Zealand have the biggest chance to do away with the underdog tag for a long time.
It’s not just about the points or even the rankings, as they can still lose to Australia in the three-match Test series, starting Thursday in Perth, and go on to beat some other teams at home and still be No.2 next year. However, to be great, New Zealand can at least start with, if not winning, drawing this series against the big opponents. And if they do so, New Zealand will finally justify why they’re second in the world or, in fact, why they can be No.1 someday.
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