Simon Day and Alex Braae, co-hosts of The Offspin podcast, look back at the 10-year evolution of the Black Caps.
The last 10 years have been a bizarre time for Black Caps supporters, because the team has been consistently good. The true joy of being a millennial New Zealand cricket fan is built on the team’s failure, more often than not, to reach its true potential for nearly 25 years, so when the Black Caps did win, the rare taste of victory was unexpectedly delicious.
To be fair, we were always a star player or two short at one time or another – usually an opening batsman, or a fast bowler, or a world-class spinner – which made it hard for us to be a top team for a long time. In a small country obsessed with rugby, we were still proud of our little summer team that sometimes could.
Then over the last decade, something happened. It was initially painful. A bandage ripped off too soon, leaving a wound only partially healed. But that wound became a pretty cool scar. Cauterised by trauma, the team was a little bit tougher than its recent predecessors. It was one that capitulated with the bat less, took wickets just a bit more regularly and embraced a place on the world stage as cricket’s good guys. We started to win all the time. And even when we lost, it was with more grace and pride than New Zealand fans were used to.
These are 10 games that defined the last 10 years of the New Zealand cricket team.
The Spinoff’s Decade in Review is presented in partnership with Lindauer Free*, the perfect accompaniment to end-of-decade celebrations for those looking to moderate their alcohol content (*contains no more than 0.5% alc/vol).
The beginning of the end
South Africa choking in a World Cup knock-out and New Zealand outperforming expectations at a World Cup are hardly surprising things. But this game is an allegory for one era ending and another taking a front seat – and the changes in attitude that came with it. The tournament was Daniel Vettori’s last dance as captain, and it was the final days for stalwarts like Scott Styris and Jacob Oram.
Beyond the South African collapse, the game is best remembered for the verbal, then physical, spat between the Black Caps and Protea players after the run out of AB de Villiers. Vettori and then 12th man Kyle Mills had run on with the drinks and got stuck into Faf du Plessis who had run out his captain and South Africa’s best player. Du Plessis shoved Mills and de Villiers returned to the centre of the field to defend his teammate.
It became a bit of a storm in the media’s teacup but it did represent the scrappy, fiery, aggressive mindset of a team that made up for a lack of natural talent with a sassy attitude. Over the next 10 years, it would be an approach to cricket that would be exorcised and ultimately rejected, as the Black Caps became known as the nicest team in cricket.
A rare trans-Tasman victory
The handover to the next generation took a leap forward in Hobart, with a rare and thrilling victory over the old foes Australia. Trent Boult took four wickets in his test debut. The bowling attack consisted entirely of four fast (medium-fast) bowlers. No part-time spinners, no dibbly-dobbly all-rounders, four genuine bowlers who took 20 wickets for 369 runs.
The transition wasn’t complete. Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill shouldn’t have been opening the batting in tests. The Jesse Ryder experiment was still alive. BJ Watling was a specialist batsman on the fringe of the team. And Ross Taylor was still captain. But not for long.
A hugely important match for how the rest of the decade would play out. Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson put on 276 runs together in the first innings, then Tim Southee and Trent Boult took nine wickets. But the game is most remembered for being Taylor’s last as captain – despite scoring 216 runs.
He was controversially deposed by Brendon McCullum, and the team dynamic changed forever. And in the long run, it was probably pretty good for Taylor’s batting as well – his career could have crumbled after the setback, but instead, he went on to become one of the country’s all-time greats.
45 all out
Forty-five. Brendon McCullum won the toss in his first match as captain, elected to bat, and the team was dismissed for 45. Arguably, they were lucky to make that many, lasting just under 20 overs at the crease.
But this game became the final breaths of the old Black Caps and set the tone for the rise up the rankings that came later.
McCullum said afterwards that the humiliation of what had happened prompted serious reflection and soul searching, with the team realising that not only were they playing like crap on the park, they were being derided and mocked off it. He asked the team not just to assess their performance but ask themselves why they played the game, and what they wanted out of cricket.
The first innings’ 45 started to cleanse the team of the tumultuous recent past. McCullum came to realise they needed to hit rock bottom in order to rise up, and ever since, it’s fair to say that the Black Caps have shown effort and results in excess of the limited resources and talent available to them.
The 300 club
After winning the first test at Eden Park, a rare series victory over India was in danger when BJ Watling joined his captain Brendon McCullum with the score 94-5 in the Black Caps’ second innings, still 152 runs behind on the third day. Over the next nine hours the pair put on a record 352 for the sixth wicket. The role of immovable rock was one Watling would make his own over the next decade as he became the world’s best keeper/batsman, but saving a test was an unfamiliar proposition for the swashbuckling McCullum. When Watling was dismissed for 124 (367) with the third new ball, there was still a lot of work to be done.
At the end of day four, McCullum was 281* not out, New Zealand ahead by 325, the match all but rescued. When he returned the next morning on a dull Wellington day, the banks of the Basin Reserve were packed with those taking the morning off to hopefully witness history. First Jimmy Neesham scored 100 on debut. Then McCullum cut through backward point for a boundary to become the first New Zealander to score 300. The ghost of Crowe was lifted and the remaining McCullum detractors with few legs left to stand on. Why the crowd of public servants and Wellington College students didn’t storm the field I’ll never know.
RIP Phillip Hughes
The second day of the test was abandoned after the death of young Australian opener Phillip Hughes during a Sheffield Shield match in Sydney. When play continued in UAE after a 24-hour delay, the Black Caps were dominant with bat and ball. But wickets and milestones were barely acknowledged. The Black Caps chose not to bowl bouncers or have anyone field close to the batsman as the loss of the talented young man hung over the test.
Hughes’s death changed cricket. It marked a withdrawal from the aggressive adversarial contest to a more kinder game. This was led by Brendon McCullum and the Black Caps who became known for the positive way they played the game – both in spirit and tactics.
World Cup finalists
This slow-motion homemade video of Grant Elliott hitting the winning six off Dale Steyn set to Vangelis’s “Chariots of Fire” speaks for itself. The greatest moment of my life.
On his own terms
In his final game for New Zealand, Brendon McCullum smashed cricket’s fastest test century off just 54 balls. But New Zealand lost the match (and the two-test series 2-0) to the seemingly invincible Australians. It’s a mountain that even this reinvigorated Black Caps team stumbles over each time it attempts to summit.
Here are McCullum’s final words as captain (cut and paste from the world’s greatest website espncricinfo.com).
“I will try to sum up 14 years in two minutes.
“[I’d] like to thank the fans who have supported us over the years. We try to represent our country with passion and try to do so with smiles on our face. The way you have turned up over the last 12 months, it has been special.
“To my team. We have had some fun over the last few years. We have achieved some pretty cool things. Hey, we have lost a few games, but we have got our souls back. I will remember for the rest of my life some of the time I have spent playing for New Zealand. Thanks for buying in, and accepting we have to play the game differently.
“Lastly, to my family. It is a tough place as a cricketer, spending the time away that you do – it is not possible without a supporting family. I said I will pay you back, and I do mean that. I came in as a youngster and leave as a 34-year-old with three beautiful kids and an amazing wife. I said I will pay you back, and I love you.
“Thank you again. You can believe in this team. They are a great bunch of men.”
Neil Wagner, beauty out of brutality
With the first two days washed out, it appeared the match was limping to a waterlogged draw on the fifth day at the Basin Reserve. Try telling that to Neil Wagner. In a 10-over spell of his famous heart, hostility and passion Wagner took 5 for 37. It was the clearest illustration of how essential Wagner has become to the New Zealand test attack and how he appears to will his way into wickets. He finished the match with career-best figures of 9 for 73 and ended the season as the fifth-best bowler in the world, according to the International Cricket Council’s rankings.
WTF just happened?!
I’ve come to reconcile the 2019 World Cup final loss like this:
Had the Black Caps won like they should have – if Trent Boult takes the catch without stepping on the boundary, removing Ben Stokes, or Stokes doesn’t hit a six off the back of his bat while diving to make his ground, or if Jason Roy was given out first ball like he should have been (the list goes on) – then we would have been the victors in a truly great game of cricket.
However, losing in the way the match played out means the Black Caps were one half of the single greatest game of cricket of all time – and the fact that it was a World Cup final means it’s truly special. Yes, it still hurts, but having a match that unfolded in such remarkable circumstances forever in the history books is mitigation for that pain.
Listen to Alex Braae and Simon Day talk to Jimmy Neesham about the World Cup final on the player below. Subscribe to The Offspin on iTunes or via Spotify, or download this episode (right click and save).
Honourable mention – an Indian double header
An evening out at Eden Park in early 2019 felt like it showed where cricket in New Zealand could one day go. First the White Ferns played India, and it was the absolute game of the summer. Tense, skilful and won by the White Ferns on the last ball to also secure a series win.
Moreover, there was a big crowd in watching it – a real rarity for the women’s game in New Zealand. Unfortunately, it was a crowd that was heavily partisan towards the Indian team – New Zealand supporters by and large apparently hadn’t thought it would be worth going to. Their loss, and perhaps that will now change. Then the men played, and it was just dire. Boring cricket on the field, and heavy-handed policing of protest banners off it.