Blame it on Peter Jackson, but since the Lord of the Rings came alive on the silver screen back in 2001, it’s become difficult to think New Zealand and not think of the Shire, and vice versa. Like the inhabitants of the lush, distant land of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, New Zealanders — certainly the Blackcaps — are an immensely likeable lot. Physically they may be bigger, but they share many of the Hobbits’ other traits: they are industrious, intelligent and have a grit that’s every bit as indestructible as the Ring.
All this is to remind oneself that the first task that the Indian team face as they begin a jumbo home season of 13 Tests in Kanpur on Thursday may not be as easy as it may appear on a cursory observation. New Zealand — despite the foreign conditions, lack of practice and a formidable Indian team pushing for the No.1 ranking — may prove a banana skin.
VVS Laxman certainly thinks they can do much better than South Africa did here: they lost 3-0. “The way they performed in the World T20, it’s clear they have got strategies and they know how to exploit the conditions — which the South Africans didn’t know,” says Laxman, on the sidelines of a Star Sports promotional event in New Delhi. That is saying something, for the Proteas were the No.1 Test team going into the series last year. It’s not an isolated opinion.
Sourav Ganguly ranks New Zealand ahead of Australia when it comes to playing in the sub-continent.
It begs the question: What makes the Blackcaps the perennial dark horse that they are? Or to extend the scope of this query: How does nation of 4.4 million population, where surveys rank cricket behind rugby and netball in terms of popularity, consistently punches above its weight? What is 4.4 million after all — if you stand on the terrace of the tallest building on the Barakhamba road, you will be be surveying an area that packs far more people than the whole of New Zealand.
“When John Wright was India’s coach, I got to know about how their first-class system functions and how they prepare as a team — especially how they prepared in the 1992 World Cup under Martin Crowe. Then I played for Otago in 2009. What I saw was that all of them have got great work ethics. It’s down to their mental make up. They don’t get anything easy, but when they get an opportunity, they want to make sure they do everything possible to do well,” Laxman says. The predominant rugby culture also hardens them physically and mentally.
Adds Laxman: “They play their sports really passionately. I think that was something really striking to me right from the first game that I played against them. Once they are on field, they will give everything. And they won’t give the opposition even an inch.”
Brett Lee, who has been part of many a great contest against the Blackcaps, calls that attitude “Australian”. “It’s their mindset. It shows you don’t need a billion people to be a successful nation. They are a very, very small nation. A lot of extremely good athletes. And they have this Australian mentality: their never say die attitude,” Lee said.
While it is a compliment, likening a New Zealander to an Australian might be considered as reductive and big brotherly by the former. The Trans-Tasman rivalry, in fact, is more intense in New Zealand because it feels at times neglected and at other times patronised by its neighbour across the ditch. Once, on February 1, 1981, it even felt wronged when Trevor Chappell bowled underarm.
“It’s probably a bit disrespectful to tell them they are like Australia,” feels Laxman. “They have got their own identity and it’s an identity to be really proud of.”
Lee, too, concedes New Zealand have got their own style. “I think if a New Zealander says we are like Australia, to us it’s a compliment. Someone is trying to be like us, it’s a nice compliment,” Lee clarifies. “But they have got their own brain of cricket, their own style. From Stephen Fleming to Brendon McCullum to this young group — they have got a legacy. Like Australia have, from Border to Taylor to Waugh…”
There is a difference though. While in Australian cricket, you are not tough enough if you are not obnoxious enough, New Zealand have melded competitiveness with fair play. It’s something they have consciously done to be congruous with their national character, as McCullum revealed in his memorable MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture earlier this year. “We wanted to personify the traits that we identified in New Zealanders — to be humble and hardworking. We wanted to be respected by our long-suffering fans in New Zealand. We wanted to be respected by our opposition; and before we could demand this, we had to learn to respect them. We wanted to be ‘blue collar’ in how we went about things, not aloof and superior,” he said.
McCullum is gone but those values remain in the team. Expect, then, New Zealand to throw everything they have got at the Indian team, and leave it out there in the field.