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Image: Alex Davidson/Getty Images. Additional design: Archi Banal
Image: Alex Davidson/Getty Images. Additional design: Archi Banal

OPINIONOpinionDecember 18, 2021

2021 was the best year to be a Black Caps fan

Image: Alex Davidson/Getty Images. Additional design: Archi Banal
Image: Alex Davidson/Getty Images. Additional design: Archi Banal

Simon Day celebrates a special year for the Black Caps, and the cricket tragics who’ve stuck with the team through thick and thin.

Thirty years ago I was lured into supporting the New Zealand cricket team with a false sense of hope. As a young child my passion for cricket was fostered by my sports-mad grandmother, who would push me in my pram to the Eden Park outer oval to watch domestic matches. So I was already a vulnerable target when she took me to the opening match of the Cricket World Cup between New Zealand and Australia at Eden Park on February 22, 1992. As Martin Crowe brought up his century off the last ball of the first innings, then proceeded to outsmart the reigning world champions with his tactics in the field, I was easily converted into a fanatic. 

A month later, at the semi final, I watched from the South Stand of Eden Park with tears streaming down my face as a 22-year-old Inzamam-ul-Haq dismantled the New Zealand bowling attack and broke my six-year-old heart. I made my grandma take me out of the ground, unable to watch the final nails being hammered into the Young Guns’ World Cup hopes. At that moment I was condemned to chase the dragon for the next 30 years.

For most of those three decades watching the New Zealand cricket team all I really hoped was we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves. That our fragile middle order wouldn’t collapse. That the opposing tailenders wouldn’t put on a 114 run stand for the 10th wicket. That we wouldn’t bowl a 14-ball opening over. 

There was always a chance something special could happen, but more often than not I was comfortable so long as we didn’t lose badly. What could you expect from a team with the depth of a spring puddle? I’ll be forever grateful for the electric performances players such as Shane Bond, Roger Twose, Stephen Fleming, Brendon McCullum, Scott Styris, Dion Nash, Jesse Ryder, Danny Morrison and Daniel Vettori gave me along the way. But mostly it was a masochistic relationship with a team that was pretty mediocre.

You might think I resent this new generation of young fans blessed with a world-beating cricket team to cheer on. In fact, I feel sorry for them. Their joy is muted by their lack of experience and understanding of what it truly means to be a Black Caps fan. What’s made the moments of brilliance and the breakthrough victories of the last six years so special is the 30 prior years of toil. These years of loyal suffering are what made 2021 such a special experience. The harder the journey, the greater the reward. But even in the McCullum/Williamson era, it felt like we might never get there. 

When I watched our 2015 World Cup dream fade with the fifth ball of the first over, I feared it marked the end of a brief golden era. Then the 2019 World Cup gave Black Caps fans the wildest ride of all. It took me months to recover from that final at Lord’s. A conversation with Jimmy Neesham helped. He explained the need to be grateful for the bad days, because without the pain of loss, there is no joy in winning.

That appreciation of the special, ephemeral feeling of glory is something I see missing in so many modern All Blacks fans. They’ve been born into a world where anything other than decisive victory is complete failure. But you don’t know how high the top is if you’ve never plumbed the depths. And then you’re left floundering when suddenly you’re losing. Absent the experience and spirit of the graft and struggle, rugby just seems boring. Being a Black Caps fan is never boring.

The first ever World Test Championship final began on my birthday, late in the evening of June 18. It was a true classic of test cricket, full of drama; a brutal tug of war with all three results still possible going into day six. Each innings had different heroes. Kyle Jamieson dominated Virat Kohli. Kane Williamson scored the best 49 you will ever see. In the second innings Tim Southee bowled like he was 24 again. 

But when Southee dropped Pant – with India 82-4 and just 50 runs ahead – my heart sank. I feared the team was destined to never quite graduate into champions. A draw started to feel like the most likely outcome. The win predictor suggested a shared title was almost inevitable. 

Then Trent Boult and Neil Wagner, two of the greatest bowlers in the history of New Zealand test cricket, replaced Southee and Jamieson, and we kept getting breakthroughs. I still struggle with the concept that this team can be so consistent and so full of talent. I feel lucky to watch Southee, Boult, Wagner and Jamieson bowl together – mostly because I’ve watched for years as people like Nathan Astle or Scott Styris or Jesse Ryder occupy the role of fourth seamer.

Henry Nicholls took a brilliant catch. The captain’s tactics were masterful. The Indian tail never wagged. By about 2am NZT we were left with 140 runs to win the first ever World Test Championship. There could not have been a more fitting way for victory to be sealed than Ross Taylor whipping a ball to square leg with Kane Williamson at the other end. The image of the two batsmen walking off the field together should be turned into a bronze statue that greets you at the gates of the Basin Reserve. It should be tattooed on the flesh of those lucky New Zealand fans who shared that special day with the team in Southampton. It’s the perfect opportunity to bring back commemorative memorabilia sold during TV coverage of the 2021/22 season.

The first thing I did was call my grandma. When I think about that day it still brings a huge smile to my face (despite those six sleepless nights during a working week leaving me crippled by a virus for weeks afterwards). The championship released the pain of the 2019 final. It was the payoff for the days spent under the pohutukawa trees at the Basin Reserve, the hours spent watching World Cups in dysfunctional time zones, the pilgrimages to Lords and India, the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on vintage New Zealand ODI cricket shirts. 

This year wasn’t only about the World Test Championship, of course. Beating England in the T20 semi final was fun, but T20 is still an inferior version of the game that doesn’t offer the same rewards as the five day test. This much was made obvious by the drawn first test against India in Kanpur. It was the first time I could remember watching the Black Caps save a test match. It was gritty and brave and unfamiliar. 

Then Ajaz Patel took all 10 wickets in an innings in the second test in Mumbai. For a paunchy New Zealand spinner to do that in front of his parents in his home town was truly heartwarming. I had to immediately call gran again. The humiliating collapse to defeat that followed was an incredible tribute to the Black Caps of old, and an important reminder of where we came from and how far we’ve come. It was hilarious. But no one will remember who won or lost that game, only the beautiful story of Ajaz’s 10-for. 

This team has already charmed the next generation of fanatics, fertilising young fans into purists. They’re making test cricket a premier product. After seeing the way the T20 World Cup final was playing out, a friend’s four-year-old son chose to watch a replay of day six of the World Test Championship final instead of watching the Australians easily chase down their target. 

The Australians remain a hurdle the Black Caps continue to stumble on. Witnessing a test series victory over Australia and an ODI World Cup title are at the top of my wishlist. But that’s why it’s so much fun to be a Black Caps fan. There’s so much joy left to realise. And so much pain to experience along the way.

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