It had been around half an hour since the run chase had ended. It was the final of the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC). New Zealand had just beaten India. The New Zealand players celebrated at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. They went on a lap of honour to thank their fans, who had been vocal in their support all day.
Moments earlier, the camera had panned towards captain Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, who overcame nerves and a spirited attack to chase “probably the longest 139 runs,” in the words of their teammate Tim Southee.
Now, as the two walked back towards the dressing room on a pleasant sunlit evening in Southampton, there was a tangible sense of relief on their faces. Relief that the quest for a maiden world title was finally over. Relief that, for once, having moved on from the insipid 45 all out in Cape Town to the inspired eight-wicket win, no one would deny them a rich celebration overnight.
Scott Styris, the former Black Caps all-rounder, says this is “easily the best New Zealand team” that’s ever played. “Getting 20 wickets wins you Tests. This team does it. It’s our best bowling group. Plus, you throw in the best Two batsmen we have ever produced in Kane and Ross, and you’ve got a good spine to the team. Tom Latham will probably finish as our best-ever opening batsman as well. B-J [Watling] has just retired as our best-ever wicketkeeper. The list goes on and on.”
The six-day Test was a testament to the compelling blend of talent and adventure synonymous with New Zealand cricket. Be it Devon Conway’s seamless elevation or Kyle Jamieson’s immaculate bowling. Be it Trent Boult and Southee’s huge, booming swing, or the relentlessness of fast bowler Neil Wagner. This team savours the Test battle, however cruel and unforgiving.
Styris says New Zealand’s recent success at the Test level stems from the dangers and delights of limited resources to draw upon. “It’s about knowing you have limited resources and trying to work with what you have. In New Zealand, players these days will be given extra chances or even picked before they’re ready because they’re talented. Two examples off the top of my head: Mitch Santner had a best first-class bowling performance of three-for and was picked as the frontline spinner. Hamish Marshall, in my time, had played two or three seasons and had a highest first-class score of 58 and was picked as a batsman to debut. We don’t have the numbers, so you have to give players the extra opportunity.”
New Zealand’s evolution as a serious contender began with McCullum before Williamson took over. – GETTY IMAGES
Styris has a point. Jamieson, the star with the ball in the final, was handed a Test debut in early 2020 when India toured New Zealand. Wagner was on paternity leave, and Jamieson was selected ahead of the more experienced Matt Henry for the Wellington Test. Jamieson ended up being Player of the Match in only his second Test in Christchurch and finished with nine wickets in the series at 2.57 with a five-wicket haul.
The breakdown of wickets taken by pace during the WTC is: England (255 wickets in 21 Tests), New Zealand (188 wickets in 12 Tests), Australia (187 wickets in 14 Tests) and India (172 wickets in 18 Tests). Teams like New Zealand, Australia and England perhaps have a greater depth of bowling resources for home conditions than when playing away. And while India has an attack that’s maybe better suited to all conditions than most teams, Styris feels the current New Zealand pace pack is the best in the world. “Australia is, too, followed by India and Pakistan. New Zealand’s weakness, if you were being critical, is how they bowl in flat conditions when the ball isn’t bouncing a lot. India and Australia always surprise when they don’t always knock teams over in helpful conditions. But all these teams are so good. It’s like comparing a Ferrari with a Lamborghini to an Aston Martin and a Maserati… You can’t go wrong.”
Styris also cites leadership as a reason for New Zealand’s ascent to world no. 1 in Tests. “It is obviously important and we have been lucky to have some great ones. You see that with some of these guys [Stephen Fleming, Brendon McCullum, Daniel Vettori] as coaches in the IPL (Indian Premier League) as well. Good leaders are good leaders whether that’s as a captain or coach. The stronger the personality, the more say and control they have.”
Eight years ago, New Zealand cricket was at a crossroads, and leadership mattered exponentially more. McCullum, who had replaced Taylor as captain for the South Africa series, was leading the team for the first time. He chose to bat in the Cape Town Test. What followed was an embarrassing collapse during which Vernon Philander took five wickets in six overs. New Zealand’s innings lasted 19.2 overs with Williamson being the only batsman to enter double digits (13). South Africa won the Test by an innings and 27 runs. “It obviously all happened pretty quickly in the first innings. I remember facing Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn just after drinks. I think in the first session of the Test, AB [de Villiers] was standing miles back and their seamers were charging in. we got skittled in no time and everyone was a bit stunned I guess,” recalls Doug Bracewell, who was part of the playing XI in that Test.
New Zealand was bowled out for 45 in the first innings of McCullum’s first Test as captain. – GETTY IMAGES
“I can’t remember exactly what was said after the Cape Town Test, but I remember someone saying – may have been Brendon – that the tour was going to be a really challenging one for us and it wasn’t going to get any easier as the South Africans had a very strong side at the time, and a relentless bowling attack. Our preparation as a team and as individuals moving forward on this tour and what’s to come needed to be a lot better.”
Bracewell doesn’t think the Cape Town capitulation “was quite rock bottom.” “The series before, if I remember correctly, we drew in Sri Lanka 1-1,” he says. “But I think as it was the start of Brendon’s captaincy; he obviously had his own way in his mind and his goals for the team moving forward. It was probably the toughest possible start he could have had with that series against South Africa. I think after that series, Brendon and [then head coach] Mike (Hesson) would have had some major discussions about how they wanted to go about things with this team moving forward, and I guess where they would go from here.
“Brendon wanted to introduce his way of how we should play the game, but also how we should hold ourselves as a team and as people. I remember him using the phrase, ‘We will be humble in victory and gracious in defeat,’ as it’s just a game we are playing, at the end of the day, and all after the same result. It was obvious that the guys all bought into what Brendon was trying to implement pretty quickly, and as a result things started to turn around in the right direction for the team.”
In his MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture, delivered at Lord’s on June 6, 2016, McCullum had remarked that if an innings of 45 all out didn’t force the team to reconsider what it was doing, nothing would. What followed was nothing short of special. Not only did McCullum inspire New Zealand to its maiden One-Day International World Cup final in 2015, but also helmed a side that strung together an unbeaten run of seven Test series, the best in its history – all this after having slipped to the then 10th lowest total in 2,069 Tests.
Former New Zealand batsman Ken Rutherford, in a chat in 2018, had weighed in on the impact of New Zealand’s run in the 2015 World Cup, beyond the field. “It was a great occasion and the semifinal climax vs South Africa will surely live long in the memory for all cricket supporters. There are some moments in sport that linger long and that last heave for six by Grant Elliott will bridge generations. The whole country did get behind their team, in a manner that paralleled the NZ public reaction to the exploits of the 1992 team. It was simply a terrific time to watch the game in this country and feel energized by the performances of Brendon and his men.
Under McCullum’s leadership, New Zealand reached its first ODI World Cup final. – GETTY IMAGES
“Cricket is now truly professional; whereas when I played, the transition to professionalism was work-in-progress. NZ cricket now has a very business-like outlook to the game, with an infrastructure that reflects both community cricket and the professional game. There are many opportunities in the game in NZ. One is the influx of Asian migrants to our country. Think India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. People from countries who love cricket. They are a significant part of the current and future cricket landscape in NZ. That’s exciting. There is a whole raft of possibilities to activate this growing group – as supporters, players, financial members of our game.”
Styris says New Zealand players are now given extended chances to succeed. “‘Don’t worry about being dropped because you won’t be. Go and play and show us how good you are.’ It’s a great philosophy. That wasn’t the case when I played. We will always get lucky when players come through together. This is one of those groups.”
He feels New Zealand’s task is to somehow ensure they don’t drop back. That is hard to plan for when you think the Williamsons, Taylors, Southees and Boults don’t come around every day. For now, New Zealand cricket is a most enduring and endearing success story of a team which is no longer the bridesmaid.