Opinion: Beating the ‘dark horse’ stereotype
It's a lazy stereotype and one that's been tagged on to New Zealand for years. They've punched above their weight in the past and have often been the surprise package. That changes this year. New Zealand aren't the underdogs – they're the team to beat.
It’s all Vernon Philander’s fault. When he almost single-handedly humiliated New Zealand back in 2013, bowling them out for a pathetic 45 in Cape Town, it gave the Black Caps the kick up the backside that they needed.
The months before that series had seen in-fighting, the unceremonious removal of Ross Taylor as captain and some mediocre performances. The shambolic display against South Africa emphasised that something needed to change.
And change it has. Brendon McCullum and Mike Hesson have instilled a new confidence in their side. They are well-balanced, well coached and well led. They have a great mix of old and new. Kyle Mills now has a perfect foil in Adam Milne, while Taylor and McCullum’s power-hitting is supported by Corey Anderson and Tom Latham.
Channel 9 might order a hit on anyone who tries to take away the World’s Funkiest Captain trophy from Michael Clarke, but McCullum is just as unorthodox, if not more so. He reads one-day games better than Clarke and isn't afraid to trust his younger bowlers at crucial moments.
He has grown as a batsman over the past year, a mix of sensible batting, powerful stroke-play and calculated risk-taking paying off. He has carried this into the limited-overs game, the format that he was once pigeonholed into.
Captaincy has made him a more mature batsman – all the outrageous shots and the desire to bully the bowlers is still there, but McCullum knows now when to rein it in, when to build a platform and when to unleash.
He is, unusually, supported by an equally capable batting order. New Zealand have often relied on one player – if they failed, the rest of the team followed suit. They now have a stable batting line up, each player having a clearly defined role. Martin Guptill provides stability for when McCullum hits out. Kane Williamson is easily one of the classiest batsmen around, and Ross Taylor ever-maturing.
Luke Ronchi proved his credentials in the recent series against Sri Lanka and Corey Anderson, despite being a boom or bust sort of player, can power New Zealand through the final overs. There’s some room for manoeuvring in the dynamic middle-order, with Grant Elliott and Tom Latham vying for a spot, but the batting line-up is seemingly settled and confident.
It’s New Zealand’s bowling that is the most exciting. Trent Boult and Tim Southee are a joy to watch. Boult, built like a strapping baby giraffe, is just beginning to find his best one-day form, while Southee troubles the batsmen with pace and swing.
They have experience in Mills, raw pace in Milne, but it is the spinners that could give New Zealand the extra edge.
Nathan McCullum has undergone a similar regeneration to his brother, albeit one that hasn't grabbed the headlines. He quietly wheels away at one end; there are no overcomplicated mystery balls, just a decent line, pace and flight variations and an ability to hold down an end.
When paired with Vettori, who has made a career out of frustrating batsmen, they can tie down the batsmen. It’s not a glamorous job, but it is one McCullum does well.
New Zealand aren't the underdogs of the World Cup, or whatever cliche is being thrown at them this time around. That’s an insult to what has been two years of hard work, both on and off the field. They have batsmen who can power them to huge scores and they have one of the most exciting bowling attacks around.
The only thing they may struggle with is pressure, particularly towards the latter stages of the competition. They do, however, have the advantage of experienced players such as Vettori, Taylor and the McCullum’s to guide the younger players.
There isn't the weight of expectation on New Zealand that there is on Australia. New Zealand play the majority of their games at home, where they've had a lot of success, and above all, they're a well-rounded team.
Hesson, Shane Bond and McCullum have swept away the mess of two years and created a proper team, one that enjoys playing with one another and one that keeps on winning. They're not the underdogs this year – they're the team to beat.
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