There is a chill in the Wellington air, thoughts are turning to autumn and beanies have been the order of the day at training – not just for the West Indians. But New Zealand’s sole focus remains giving this feverish summer the most glorious of finishes.
They have won eight ODIs in a row. Extend that to 11 and they will have etched a spot in New Zealand’s sporting history normally reserved for the All Blacks. First things first, though – the biggest week the team has faced begins with West Indies on the ground where they skittled England for 123 and rampaged to the target.
Never have New Zealand been so heavily fancied for a World Cup knockout match. It is something the opposition have been keen to play up, firstly from Darren Sammy and then Curtly Ambrose although captain Jason Holder was a little more reserved.
New Zealand are the team with more to lose and have been less bombastic in the build-up. But, as they have throughout the last month, the co-hosts have embraced the expectation. They carry themselves with an air of confidence, led by Brendon McCullum, which they are entitled to do.
“It’s the greatest time of our lives,” McCullum said. “The brand of cricket has really captivated New Zealand and is starting to make people around the world sit up and take notice as well. We love the fact we are playing in front of big crowds and have had the support we’ve had from our country. Hopefully it continues for another week or so yet. The guys have had some incredible experiences and it’s the type of thing you don’t want finishing any time soon.”
The brand McCullum refers to centres around him – the batting, the captaincy and the fielding. It is a high-risk strategy (which includes hurling himself into boundary boards) especially with no second chances from now on, but self-doubt is not in McCullum’s make-up.
“I hope it doesn’t change just because there’s pressure on, because that shouldn’t take you away from the best opportunity to win,” he said. “That style we’re playing has served us well, things don’t always go according to plan but you have to go to plan B. We have the players skills-wise and with the characters in the group who can quickly adjust.”
No one, as yet, has been able to knock them off the pedestal. They were nearly toppled by Mitchell Starc’s burst at Eden Park and were pushed by Bangladesh in Hamilton. Yet rather than make them nervous, those results have helped instil an even greater belief in the team that they can overcome whatever challenge is put in front of them.
“I’m a horse racing fan so in that parlance if we miss the start it doesn’t mean we’re out of the race,” McCullum said. “The horse has never been better and we’ve got every chance in this game to go out and win even if things aren’t 100 percent. You can’t say that about too many New Zealand teams in the past so that’s encouraging.”
Much has been made of the individual talent in the West Indies side even though the collective remains an inconsistent and brittle entity. So far in the tournament, New Zealand have been able to quell any uprising in the opposition: Sri Lanka’s strong start to the chase in Christchurch, David Warner’s early foray in Auckland, Shakib Al Hasan’s cheap removal of McCullum and Kane Williamson in Hamilton. So the prospect of an early slugging by Chris Gayle, a middle-order rally from Darren Sammy or Andre Russell, or a wobble against Holder and Jerome Taylor does not send shivers through them.
“If West Indies turn up and someone plays a match-winning innings that’s good enough to overcome us at our best, then I can live with that,” McCullum said. “That’s just how the game is played. But I’m still confident we’ve got the team, even if we don’t have the perfect trip, where we still a chance of being there at the finish. You can’t be fearful of anything in this game, it’s a competition between two teams and a competition between bat and ball, you can’t be too worried about the emotions and just deal with a game as it unfolds.”
The cricket season is drawing to a conclusion in the southern hemisphere. Whether New Zealand have one, two or three matches remaining will define this team’s place in history.