Redemption and a good underdog story are probably the two narratives that any sport thrives on and sports fans long for. Both have an incredible feel-good vibe to them. And when New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson hoisted the World Test Championship Mace as inaugural winners - beating India by eight wickets on the reserve day in the rain-marred final at the Southampton - it was a story of redemption, not only of 2019 World Cup heartbreak but of 2013 Cape Town debacle as well. It was also the story of a handful of athletes from a tiny nation of five million reaching the pinnacle of the sport, besting the superstar team of Virat Kohli-led India.
Michael Atherton, former England captain, and broadcaster, had termed India vs New Zealand WTC final as a classic David vs Goliath duel. “For me, the fascination is the David and Goliath aspect to it. A country of a billion people, they sell their TV rights for billions of dollars, and a country of 5 million and they probably earn about 15 million dollars in TV rights. So it’s a real clash of contrast in cultures," Atherton had said ahead of the WTC final.
Yet, on the field at the Ageas Bowl Williamson’s New Zealand beating Kohli’s in India under three days of play that was possible is not the tale of David trumping Goliath against all odds. New Zealand was the first team to make it to the final of the WTC after dominating their oppositions at home - blanking India, West Indies, and Pakistan - and walking away with a 1-1 draw in Sri Lanka in the two-year cycle of the championship. Their only series loss came at the hands of Australia (0-3). And, NZ’s ascendency did not start from the fateful day at Lord’s when they lost to England over boundary count. They had made it to the 2015 World Cup final, only to be denied by Australia. They were the semi-finalists in the next year’s ICC T20 World Cup in 2016.
It is no coincidence that from 2013 to 2021, New Zealand played 290 matches across formats winning 160 matches and losing 99. They were involved in five ties and 16 draws while 10 matches produced no result. They have maintained a win-loss ratio of 1.616. On the contrary, between 2006 and 2013, they played 257 matches across formats, winning 103, losing 124. They were involved in five ties, 14 draws while 11 matches ended in no result, A win-loss ratio of 0.832.
The Black Caps had always been seen as the dark horses; a team that more ofthen than not punched above their weight in ICC tournaments and against their more fancied teams in bilateral tours, but never really had enough left in the tank for that home stretch. Not anymore though. New Zealand started to shed the dark horses’ tags in these last few years, and oddly enough, heading into the WTC final, were favorites. And they played like the favorites. It was not a performance that came out of the blue. It was a culmination of what New Zealand Cricket, Brendon McCullum, and Mike Hesson set about after NZ had succumbed to the lowest Test score since 1994 at Cape Town.
“In early January 2013, we played South Africa at Cape Town. I’d decided that if we won the toss, we’d bat. Nineteen overs and two balls later we were all out for 45. I’m not sure what happened to the table cloth - it felt like Steyn, Morkel, and Philander had whipped it away under us," McCullum remembered the day during his MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in 2016. He went on to add how NZ cricket changed its approach. “In changing the way we approached the game and respected the opposition, we wanted to be true to our national identity. In terms of that, New Zealanders identify with strong silent types. Perhaps our greatest hero is Sir Edmund Hilary - the first person to climb Mt Everest."
Enter Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Tim Southee. All of whom are at the forefront of NZ success and, as McCullum puts it, the strong silent types.
Watling, Williamson, and Trent Boult were part of the playing XI in that 1st Test; Neil Wagner was in the squad, while Southee too was named, before being withdrawn. All of them featured in the WTC final at the Ageas Bowl this week as well. Watling played his final Test. The then 22-year-old Williamson leads the side and is unarguably one of the modern-day greats; another 22-year-old Boult now is one of the leading wicket-takers in Test cricket and has combined with Southee to form a potent fast bowling pair. And what about Wagner? Well, the Wagner cult is ever-growing. From that 2019 World Cup squad, Williamson, Henry Nicholls, Taylor, Tom Latham, Colin de Grandhomme, Matt Henry, Boult, Southee, and Tom Blundell were part of this week’s WTC Final squad.
Among the active fast bowlers in the circuit currently, Boult and Southee are in the top five wicket-takers list alongside the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, and Ishant Sharma. Williamson is part of the fab four - the best of this generation - with the likes of Steve Smith, Kohli, and Joe Root. Taylor, still going strong at 37, is one of the most underrated players in the game today. Watling retires as NZ’s most successful wicketkeeper. Add to that Kyle Jamieson, a rookie, but a talisman of an all-rounder who has five five-wicket hauls in just eight matches and he played a crucial role both with the bat and the ball in the final.
This is not just a case of nice guys - they genuinely are - finishing first, but this is a handful of generational talent all coming together to hand New Zealand cricket their biggest moment under the sun. New Zealand never had a dearth of great players - right from Glenn Turner, Sir Richard Hadlee, Daniel Vettori, Chris Cairns, Martin Crowe, Brendon McCullum, Shane Bond - but the current New Zealand team is blessed with one of the best group of cricket players from the country playing together and nurtured by a robust system that was put in place after that Cape Town debacle.
In 2013, they were ranked eighth in Tests. Fast forward seven years and New Zealand are not only the top-ranked Test side now, but proud winners for the inaugural World Test championship. Only their second ICC title after ICC KnockOut Trophy win in 2000 at Nairobi beating India. 21 years ago it was a world-class all-rounder Chris Crains who walked with the Player-of-the-Match award. At Southampton, it was another promising fast-bowling all-rounder Jamieson, who was adjudged the player of the match.