Sports

Have the Black Caps truly turned things around?

Alex Chapman took the opportunity to look at the last year of New Zealand cricket, bookended by two brutal defeats. 

New Zealand v Sri Lanka - 2nd T20

What if we’d bowled first? What if Brendon McCullum hadn’t been bowled early? What if simply being nice and the spirit of the game were enough to carry a team to a world title? What if…

It’s been just over a year since the 2015 Cricket World Cup Final which (and sorry to slice open that wound and remind you) New Zealand lost. Late last month, New Zealand lost again, this time in the T20 World Cup in India. So, has anything really changed, or has nothing changed at all?

Maybe, it’s a bit of both.

In the wake of the one-sided world cup final at the MCG, the Black Caps began the fresh season (does cricket even have a season?) by trying to find a way to stop England beating them at their own game. Hopes were high for the New Zealanders in the UK, but the home side showcased a brand of cricket that neatly mirrored, then eclipsed the Black Caps.

England’s woeful world cup, and it was truly woeful, was suddenly a distant memory, as distant as Tim Southee’s seven wicket haul in Wellington. The likes of Joe Root, Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler flogged the Kiwi bowlers to all parts, while the New Zealand batsmen struggled to even keep up. The One-Day series finished 3-2 in favour of England.

If that series was frustrating, the test series was infuriating. McCullum’s attacking style had every one of its flaws exposed as the Black Caps let a coveted win at Lord’s slip. As Andrew McGlashan of ESPNCricinfo.com wrote,

“Shortly before lunch on Saturday, New Zealand were 404 for 3, building a lead, and England’s new era was heading for a difficult start. At 6pm on Monday, with less than 10 overs of a compelling Test match remaining, Trent Boult upper cut Stuart Broad towards third man where Moeen Ali, stationed there by Alastair Cook but not right on the boundary edge, took a superbly judged running catch to earn England a 124-run victory and complete a remarkable turnaround.

The Black Caps atoned at Headingly, but a leveled series fell well below expectation. New Zealand fans were once again left to ask themselves, “what if?”

There was a tour of Africa – short-lived, largely forgotten – before the tour New Zealand fans had waited for, finally arrived. Despite all the history, all the struggles of a mere handful of New Zealand sides in Australia, Kiwis were licking their lips at the prospect of feasting on some kangaroo.

The reality was sobering. What are you guys doing? Why are you playing those shots? Why are you bowling in those areas? WHY DID YOU PICK THAT GUY? The Aussies walloped the Kiwis in Brisbane, there was a high scoring draw in Perth (and one hell of an innings from Ross Taylor) and the guinea pig pink ball test in Adelaide ended inside three days, with another Australian victory. What if…

December brought with it test success against Sri Lanka. Nothing says Christmas in New Zealand like the sight of eleven Sri Lankan cricketers shivering in the outfield at Dunedin’s University Oval. It’s as seasonal as a pohutakawa in bloom. Test success became one day success, which became T20 success. The Sri Lankan tour was the boost the Black Caps needed; it was the boost their fans needed. It was the start of the last genuine summer of McCullum.

And it all boiled down to one last tour. The return visit of Australia would be the litmus test for just how far the Black Caps had come since electrifying the nation during their best-ever cricket world cup. This was McCullum’s last stand, a chance to walk into cricket’s sunset with a home test series win over Australia. A chance to join the immortals of the New Zealand game.

The Black Caps lost both tests. McCullum went down swinging. He went down scoring 145 in his final test. He went down the way he came up: at 100 miles an hour, bat flying, hungry for history. He went down hitting the fastest ever test century.

I’d met Brendon McCullum twice. The first time was the day before the Cricket World Cup semi final last year. I found myself in the same hotel as the New Zealand team. With my girlfriend in tow, glass of red wine in hand, I walked towards a small table where McCullum sat with a couple of mates. “Good luck tomorrow boys,” I stuttered.

“Thanks mate,” was McCullum’s reply.

Eye contact! Genuine appreciation! I was shocked. I’d heard the stories. We all had. He was arrogant, he was rude, he only cared about himself. No, not on this day. I was a giggling schoolgirl, a Directioner meeting One D. My girlfriend thought it was the funniest thing she had witnessed, but she didn’t understand. This was the man I’d dreamed of meeting; the man who had made me want to buy that bat, and play that shot, and, in more recent times, set that outrageous field.

I met him for the second and final time at a press conference later in the year. He thanked the media, he smiled at every question. He was as cool as – he was as cool as Brendon McCullum. He was asked about his style of play. What if he could be just a little more circumspect? What if he didn’t chase every ball he faced? What if…

…Then McCullum retired. And cricket fans wondered what it would be like.

But then Martin Crowe died, and the what if’s no longer seemed to matter.

Crowe’s death was a jolt for me for two reasons. First, like me, he played for the Cornwall Cricket Club in Auckland. We train and play beneath Maungakiekie, where once were scattered the ashes of Martin Crowe’s father. It’s the ground on which Hogan played his final game; on which he learned and refined his craft – a craft which we know made him into the tortured genius this country loved. We played the week after Martin Crowe died. We wore black arm bands and observed a moment’s silence. When I walked from the middle I had to remove my sunglasses and wipe away the potential tears. We all took time to remember why we play this crazy, pedantic, emotional game.

Martin Crowe

A second reason: Martin Crowe was born on the same day, in the same year, as my Dad. He’d have you believe it was in the exact same room as him, but the same hospital is just as good. My dad messaged me the day Hogan died. He told me how grateful he was for his health. I was grateful for that, too. What if…

…I never knew Martin Crowe but a colleague and friend of mine, Tim Roxborogh, knew him well. Roxy and I went for a net the week after Crowe’s funeral. I was hesitant to ask him about the service; I had prepared myself mentally that he may cry, or tell me to change the subject.  Roxy didn’t do either. Instead he spoke of how genuinely grateful he was that his mate Marty had been in his life.

And now we speak, as cricket fans, of how genuinely grateful we are to have Kane Williamson in our team. The last 12 months has seen the continual rise of McCullum’s replacement, our latest batting master. As calm as a windless day, Kane Williamson has delighted cricketing fans around the world, outclassing other rising stars like Steve Smith and Virat Kohli along the way.

Williamson has posted a 50-plus average in all forms of cricket over the last 12 months. He has done so with a calculated and composed style that brings to mind – yes – MD Crowe. What if he surpasses Crowe?

And what of the last twelve months? Has anything changed at all? Martin Crowe is gone, yes, and Brendon McCullum has retired, but now we have Kane Williamson – a man who embodies the best of Crowe and who grew into a leader under McCullum’s fun-first philosophy. Things haven’t so much changed, they have advanced.

In thinking about the last twelve months, we should look upon New Zealand cricket simply as a continuum, along which there will be wins and there will be losses, and along which, because such is the nature of this strange and confounding and idiosyncratic game, there will always be the question of what if…

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