MELBOURNE: “Brave, pragmatic and modest” is how New Zealanders define an ideal Kiwi with Nobel laureates, All Black stars, Edmund Hillary is regarded as one. Come Sunday and on a different magnitude, Brendon McCullum too would try to take his team to a peak New Zealand have not scaled. After six semifinal setbacks, they have a mountain to climb in the form of what many of them call Big Brother in a maiden World Cup final.
On a windy and overcast Saturday morning, the MCG net practice area looked crowded. From a distance, it seemed Indian fans had gathered to cheer the underdogs. Getting closer, one discovered hordes of New Zealanders, draped in national flags, some in black and several sporting the national team’s cricket shirts. Many are here to make sure their stars don’t feel outnumbered in a theatre that seats over 90,000.
McCullum was busy doing what gives New Zealand an edge they have seldom had. “Third-man and mid-wicket,” a net bowler called before running in. The ball went screaming over his head. It kept flying amid changes in imaginary field placements. Spotted among the crowd, former New Zealand all-rounder Gavin Larsen told this newspaper McCullum’s leadership makes this bunch different from those that lost the 2007 and 2011 semifinals.
“His batting makes a big impact, as more often than not, he gets the team off to a flier. McCullum is also an inspirational leader, whose presence has contributed to the success of this lot. His personality is essentially Kiwi, which is strongly humble. You can see the reflection in the performance of his team. Martin Crowe was a master tactician. McCullum is charismatic and lifts players with his presence,” said Larsen, part of Crowe’s team in 1992.
McCullum has 328 runs from eight innings, which isn’t staggering, but his strike rate is 191.81. Around him, New Zealand have a bunch of batsmen who are taking turns to make their presence felt, and they are not dependent on individuals.
“There are about four-five batsmen who can win a match on their day. They are unafraid and situations don’t bother them, as can be seen the way they’ve won chasing and defending. In the final against a very good side, they’ll enjoy this confidence,” felt Larsen.
Having nailed Australia in a low-scoring thriller, New Zealand are unbeaten.
Apart from different batsmen coming good when required, fast bowlers are taking wickets. Trent Boult is heading the tournament list with 21 and Tim Southee isn’t far back on 15. This shows unlike the generation Larsen represented, this lot doesn’t just contain. They can strike and Australia know that, having been bowled out for 151 in a Pool A match.
While former Kiwi skipper Stephen Fleming said a few days back the difference between these bowlers and those of the past is “15kmph per hour”, Larsen reckoned this has been one of the best bowling sides.
“They can swing the ball at good pace and like batting, they have match-winners in bowling. Australia are probably the favourites at home ground. New Zealand have the attack to test anybody.”
With several factors that rarely came together in the past combining, New Zealand are ready. If they handle stage fright, the big stage is ready to witness a battle befitting the moment.
All eyes will be on the South Africa-born middle-order batsman, who hit an unbeaten 84, including the match-winning six, in New Zealand’s nerve-shredding win over South Africa in the semifinal. A surprise selection for the tournament, Elliot won the nod due to his calm batting in the Sri Lanka series earlier this year.