It was appropriate the bulk of New Zealand’s 1992 World Cup squad paraded at the Basin Reserve last Saturday.
The feelgood factor and stocks of New Zealand’s summer game haven’t been this high in the 22 years since.
The country fell back in love with cricket and the Black Caps, a fickle, erratic sporting relationship for many. No mainstream New Zealand sporting team had evoked such negative punchlines and eye rolling one-liners among the masses.
The hordes who flocked from work to the Basin on a gloomy Tuesday morning, fire in their eyes and expectant smiles on their faces, said it all. It was the game that stopped a nation. The spine-tingling, prolonged ovation that greeted Brendon McCullum’s triple century was a once in a generation cricketing moment at the venerable ground, preceded by Richard Hadlee’s 300th test wicket in 1986 and the breakthrough win over England in 1978.
Talk about ending on a high. It’s stumps now on the home front till a potential ODI visit by South Africa in October, which begins a lengthy white ball countdown to the World Cup where the fever will rise again, assuming all the New Zealand stars are fit and firing again.
McCullum and coach Mike Hesson’s men won four trophies and shared another against West Indies and India this summer. Neither are historically good travellers to New Zealand, and were missing the star names of previous visits, but some stunning individual performances and the way the hosts kept their standards high was reason for optimism looking ahead one year.
New Zealand won both test series, 2-0 against West Indies and 1-0 against India. In ODIs the hosts won six and tied one of the nine completed matches, with one bad day against West Indies in Hamilton stopping them winning that series too. Their slow climb gained pace, seventh on both the test and ODI rankings now.
India arrived as World Cup and Champions Trophy holders, and the world’s second-ranked test side. Remarkably they didn’t win a game all tour, with flaky batting and regular matchwinning performances from the hosts keeping them on the back foot throughout.
New Zealand’s problem in recent years was a lack of world-class performers. Now their key axis with bat and ball are rated among the world’s best in test cricket. Ross Taylor is fifth and McCullum a career-best 12th on the batting charts; while new ball duo Trent Boult and Tim Southee, who took 59 test wickets between them this summer, are eighth and ninth respectively.
In behind them, Kane Williamson and Neil Wagner played vital roles in the Auckland test victory, and gloveman BJ Watling equally so in the series-clincher in Wellington with his team on the ropes.
‘‘It defined the way we want to play our cricket. Sure, we don’t want to be 200 behind but we lost pretty much every important toss the whole summer and got ourselves in some tricky positions and managed to keep fighting out of it. We were in the trickiest position of all on Sunday and the way Brendon and BJ played was just exceptional,’’ Hesson said.
The coach nailed nearly all his selections and they repaid him. With allrounders Corey Anderson and Jimmy Neesham jostling for spots in the top 11, selection meetings become so much simpler with versatility. Hesson’s staff of Shane Bond and Bob Carter saw generous rewards for their toil and scouting, particularly Bond whose crop of fast bowlers grows stronger by the month.
McCullum’s one missing piece of the captaincy puzzle, consistent big scores with the bat, is now in place. His sore back remains a big questionmark and he’ll be kept in cotton wool at times, but if his body plays ball then the next year is his oyster.
That starts with the World Twenty20, with the team departing on March 8 for an acclimatisation camp in Dubai before their tournament opener against England on March 22.
Their next three tours are to Bangladesh, West Indies and Dubai (against Pakistan), places where they’ve hardly set the world on fire. Winning away from home, dealing with heat and playing spin confidently and aggressively, remains their work in progress.
But if their matchwinners fire again, a World T20 semifinal is comfortably in their grasp. They need to beat two of England, South Africa and Sri Lanka to get there, with the latter the toughest to get past. Daniel Vettori’s absence is costly, leaving Ronnie Hira or possibly Anton Devcich with big shoes to fill in spin-friendly conditions. A stroke of luck always helps in T20, and their recent roll might be enough to provide it.
TEST STATISTICS AND PLAYER RATINGS
Peter Fulton (9 innings, 123 runs at 13.67, HS 61)
Rating: 2. The numbers tell the story. A wretched summer and it got difficult to see where the next run was coming from. Tough to make a case for his inclusion for the West Indies.
Hamish Rutherford (9 innings, 204 runs at 25.50, HS 62)
Rating: 4. Made a few promising starts but continues to struggle to kick on. Still too loose early but has youth on his side and should get a reprieve for the Caribbean.
Aaron Redmond (2 innings, 26 runs at 13, HS 20)
Rating: 2. Only got one chance with Kane Williamson's broken digit in Dunedin and didn't seize it. Still thereabouts amid the openers' struggles but the selectors may look at younger options.
Kane Williamson (7 innings, 329 runs at 47, HS 113)
Rating: 7. His Auckland century was a class act in difficult conditions, and spurred Brendon McCullum on to his big knock. Still only 23 and has thousands more runs to give for his country.
Ross Taylor (7 innings, 539 runs at 134.75, HS 217no)
Rating: 9. Who would have thought after the West Indies series that he'd be outdone for batsman of the summer? Took his game to a new level of focus and determination in batting over 20 hours against West Indies, and probably would have gone big at the Basin but for the arrival of little Jonty.
Tom Latham (2 innings, 29 runs at 14.50, HS 29)
Rating: 4. Nearly a pass mark for his encouraging second innings on debut where he batted 112 minutes and looked the part before a loose pre-lunch shot. The selectors are big fans and he looks a likely opener in the West Indies tests.
Brendon McCullum (8 innings, 706 runs at 88.25, HS 302)
Rating: 9. Went from shaky to sublime as a test batsman, and a career-best 12th on the world rankings. Endless toil in the nets, rock solid defence and an aura of calm saw him join Don Bradman and Walter Hammond as the only batsmen to do the double-triple in successive tests. Say no more.
Corey Anderson (8 innings, 202 runs at 28.85, HS 77; 89 overs, 8 wickets at 33.75, BB 3-47)
Rating: 5. Not the dominant test summer we expected from the batting allrounder who now faces stiff competition from Jimmy Neesham. Showed his golden arm abilities in the Hamilton victory but went wicketless against India.
BJ Watling (7 innings, 262 runs at 37.42, HS 124; 28 catches)
Rating: 8. An excellent summer from the quiet achiever. His pacemen got the edges and he continued to pouch them, then produced a standout century with his team in trouble at the Basin. Looked even more immovable than McCullum which is saying something.
Jimmy Neesham (2 innings, 170 runs at 170, HS 137no; 23 overs, 1 wicket at 87, BB 1-62).
Rating: 7. One century does not a summer make, but it goes pretty close. A week after notching his highest first-class score, Neesham showed maturity and composure amid the tension of McCullum's triple-century chase on Tuesday. Bowls with some heat, too, providing the selectors with a headache when spinner Ish Sodhi returns.
Tim Southee (187 overs, 29 wickets at 20.27, BB 4-52)
Rating: 8. Another fine summer where he could easily have grabbed an extra handful of wickets. Created the pressure for Trent Boult to capitalise on, and bowled outstandingly in Auckland before Neil Wagner finished the job. A key lieutenant for McCullum.
Ish Sodhi (105 overs, 5 wickets at 78.40, BB 2-63)
Rating: 4. Still young and a work in progress but clearly the country's best spinner. Bowled some gems in Dunedin, then ended in tough fashion at Eden Park when savaged by Virat Kohli and company. Well benefit from the experience and be handy on turning Caribbean pitches.
Neil Wagner (165 overs, 19 wickets at 33.36, BB 4-62)
Rating: 7. Earns a couple of points for his matchwinning spell at Eden Park. Toiled in the shadow of the new ball pair until unleashing on the Indian batsmen when his team looked beaten. Durable and reliable third seamer who gets key wickets with the old ball.
Trent Boult (199 overs, 30 wickets at 19.26, BB 6-40)
Rating: 9. Produced one of the best swing bowling performances in New Zealand test history to dispatch West Indies at the Basin, and also played a key role in the hosts' Hamilton and Auckland wins. Is the fittest in the team and still leads the attack strongly. With Southee looks certain to go down as the country's best new ball duo.
Should the NZ selectors pick Jesse Ryder if he's available?