Sports

Can it be real? On the impossibility of being a happy Black Caps fan

The Black Caps are historically great, so why does it feel wrong to believe in them? Sonia Gray writes on the hurt haunting the team’s winning run.

New Zealand cricket is on an unbelievable, once-in-a-generation, too-good-to-be-true, pinch-me-if-I’m-dreaming kind of high. Yet still, as Black Cap supporters, we struggle to truly believe, deep in our war-weary bones, that this winning streak is anything more than an anomaly. Surely we are only a match away from a batting collapse or a bowling debacle. Even as we were humiliating Australia on Wednesday, the doubts remained. ‘There’s no way we can’t do it without Taylor… Guptill can’t play the Aussies… Williamson’s out for a duck?! It’s all over!’ A defeatist attitude that’s been disproven at every turn, but a safe one all the same.

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However, a couple of weeks ago, a seismic shift took place inside this fan. It was the day after our 10-wicket T-20 win against Pakistan and I was enjoying the back-slapping and high-fiving on Martin Devlin’s Radio Sport show. At around 9.45am, South African cricket commentator Neil Manthorp came on to update us on the day’s play in the 3rd Test between South Africa and England in Johannesburg.

He’s a semi-regular on Devlin’s show and I always enjoy his take on the game. But today Manthorp had an important message for Black Cap fans. “I still think you New Zealanders have a problem accepting how good your team is,” he said, “Do you understand? You are playing a beautiful brand of cricket, carry on like this and you could be top in the world in both Test and One Day cricket”.

Adam Milne

At that point I had to pull the car over to the side of the road so I could let this information land. Manthorp continued: “You guys are really good. accept it, ENJOY the moment – because it won’t last forever.”

“Enjoy the moment.” So simple, yet so profound. The Buddha and Eckhart Tolle and Fatboy Slim have been preaching it for years, but it took a part-time South African cricket commentator for me to really get it: Right here, right now, we are in a golden era for New Zealand Cricket. What a disaster it would be if we finally reached Peak Black Cap and failed to recognise it until it was over.

And so, when the Black Caps had Australia at 40/4 on Wednesday night, my NPA (New Positive Attitude) recognised that something special was about to go down. 6.30pm on a weeknight is not an ideal time to walk out on your husband and small children, but my FOMO was burning stronger than my duty to family. I caught the 249 bus direct to Eden Park, and by the time I reached the ground the Aussies were 76/6. The North Stand was heaving and I was ready to enjoy the moment. There are few things more satisfying than watching an Aussie batting collapse.

At 8/121 my friend Philip – still firmly in Camp Doubt – declared it a 50/50 game. As if on cue Kane Richardson got hold of a full delivery from Henry and belted it over the sight screen for six. The old me would have broken out in a cold sweat, looked at the required run rate and the total, and felt both were all of a sudden very gettable. The new me quietly finished my god-awful Eden Park Tui and watched Santner spin Richardson out of the game.

I haven’t always been able to sip the bad beer and reflect on all that is good. “The natural state of being a sports fan is disappointment,” wrote Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, referring surely to the natural state of the New Zealand cricket supporter.

Perhaps that feeling the glass is always on the verge of emptying is part of our makeup, rooted deep in the Kiwi DNA. Make disappointment your default position and you’ll never actually be disappointed. The Australians, by contrast, retain an annoying optimism, even when the facts scream otherwise. In yesterday’s paper, following one of their team’s worst performances ever, against any side, Fox News had this to say:

“The loss does not change the fact Australia are an outstanding one-day outfit.

Sure, the writer pointed out all the holes in the side’s dismal showing, an inability to play the swing ball etc, etc. But no New Zealand publication would dare print a sentence like this after such an embarrassing, soul-crushing loss.

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There are solid reasons for our collective lack of belief. Historically, it’s not been easy to be a Black Caps supporter. Wind the wagon wheel back to the 1992 Cricket World Cup, and you land on the occasion I suffered my first heartbreak at the hands of cricket. While most teenage girls were obsessing over Boyz 2 Men, my attention was squarely on the Black Caps.

And we were on fire. Martin Crowe’s side, complete with that wonderful quartet of dibbly-dobbly bowlers, won seven games on the trot. As a nation we were exultant, triumphant and brimming with confidence. We threw off the mental shackles and dared to believe our Young Guns could win the damn thing. So when Pakistan beat us in the semi-final I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. The image of lovely Rod Latham (dad of Tom) crying as he did his lap of honour will stay with me for eternity.

Tearful, team of 92

Then the anger came. What right did we have to think we could be champions of cricket? Why did we let down that safety shield of doubt? I crawled sadly back into my small, dark supporters cave marked Possible. NEVER Probable.

In the years since, well, it’s been a rocky road. Some wonderful, giddy highs, but many, many lows. At the end of 2013, after we’d suffered a whitewash at the hands of Bangladesh in a one day series, I forced myself to take a long, hard look at my role as a Black Caps supporter. What was I getting out of the game? What toll was it taking on my family? How much longer could I endure the pain of the loss?

As any cricket fan knows the answer always lies in the stats. And the stats were not pretty. For the two years previous (2012 and 2013) our ODI winning record was just 35%. In the same period we were victors in a solitary Test Match. Against Zimbabwe. Even an ardent fan has to recognise when it’s time to take a breather.

Little did I know, we were on the eve of one of the greatest team turnarounds in world sport. My beige brigade two-piece didn’t stay in storage for long. After their particularly ugly coup d’etat, McCullum and Hesson had been working behind the scenes to find the soul of the side and it started showing on the scoreboard. I was quickly seduced back – we all were, and in greater numbers than before. And now, here we are, supporting a team that has found it’s rhythm and it’s sass and has the stats to prove it: a 70% ODI winning record since the beginning of 2014. Neil Manthorp is right, we are good.

Dare to believe

The curtains will one day close on this wonderful period of play and we’ll go back to being the minnows who occasionally punch above our weight. But maybe not. Maybe we can extend this glorious run all the way to the next World Cup. This team has the talent, no question about it. Our biggest enemy is injuries and to a lesser extent defection (see Russell Crowe, Phar Lap, et al.)

So if we are to stay on top we need to find ways to protect our players, our assets, when they are not on the field. We need good solid safe places to stash them.

It seems the security of our future glory lies in the wellbeing of our fantastic top order so I suggest Kane Williamson and Martin Guptill be placed inside Kim Dotcom. And we can take no risks with our star strike bowlers of the moment, Boult and Henry. The injury-prone Trent Boult should be put into witness protection until Cricket World Cup 2019. And we can put Matt Henry second on the ACT party list, where no one will ever find him.

If successful we should obviously look into expanding the programme to the rest of the team, and possibly current affairs journalists also. But right now, especially now, let’s enjoy this beautiful brand of cricket we’re witnessing. Remember, a batting collapse could always be just a game away.


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