That a country with a population of less than 5 million, and a cricket structure with an annual turnover of around $50 million – half of Virat Kohli’s net worth – has made two World Cup finals in a row and is ranked among the top three teams in both Tests and One-Day Internationals is a remarkable achievement in itself. To put the numbers in perspective, New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson, considered part of the so-called ‘Fab Four’ of contemporary batting, earns a base salary of $236,000.
The Black Caps are always a competitive outfit, regardless of the names on the team sheet, and India – who face them in five T20Is starting on Friday, followed by three ODIs and two Tests – will take them lightly at their own peril. The Kiwis had a nightmarish tour of Australia recently. Ravaged by injury and illness and up against a rejuvenated outfit, they were hammered 3-0. But on their own turf, they will be a different proposition. Overall, their record in the longest format remains impressive, they are undefeated in 10 of their last 12 Test series since 2016. Apart from doing well at home, of late they have had a 1-1 draw in Sri Lanka while getting the better of Pakistan 2-1 in the UAE.
On the eve of India’s opening T20I fixture against the Black Caps at Auckland’s Eden Park, Kohli asserted: “We will look to put New Zealand under pressure from the first ball.” It’s easier said than done even though India may be in imperious form and New Zealand are smarting by the spate of injuries to some of their top players such as Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson. But the visitors will be wary as they were beaten 2-1 in the shortest format when they were in New Zealand last year.
What makes the Black Caps so ultra-competitive across formats, despite the limited resources at their disposal? “We’ve been blessed with a small playing group, where everyone knows everyone. They all support and back each other a lot. We see to it that we get the best out of our available talent pool,” Heath Mills, CEO of New Zealand Players’ Association, tells The Indian Express.
And in Williamson – much like his predecessors Martin Crowe, Stephen Fleming and Brendon McCullum – they have a captain with tactical nous who doesn’t hesitate to think out of the box. “Since we don’t have thousands of young players coming through the ranks at a given point in time, that’s the only way to compete and remain relevant at the global stage,” Mills explains.
Sometime in 2010, NZC took a decision that would have far-reaching consequences on the cash-crunched cricketing ecosystem in the country. “The administrators reached a conclusion that the best way to develop our players was to allow them to play in these high-profile T20 leagues such as the IPL, Natwest T20 blast in England and the Caribbean Premier League. The reasoning was simple – these leagues are paying for the development of our players. So, it’s a win-win situation for us,” Mills opines.
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This opened the floodgates for players to ply their trades on foreign shores. People like Fleming, Daniel Vettori and Mike Hesson also turned into high-profile coaches.
“We have been very flexible in allowing our players to play abroad. I think that our players and our coaches bring a certain quality to the teams they represent because they are good at getting the best from players and in fostering a team culture. So, they are valued for their personal qualities,” he elaborates.
Towards the second half of the last decade, there was a frenetic scramble among cricket boards to set up their own T20 league, along the lines of the IPL. The NZC, however, refrained from getting into this race. Instead, they built a low-key T20 league, consisting of only domestic talents. It was called the Super Smash. With economies of scale, this was a pragmatic decision. “We recognise that we’re a small country from a resource point of view, so we need to operate more smartly from a global cricketing environment point of view. Which was why we began our own domestic competition known as the Super Smash.”
This competition and the several others around the globe that employ Kiwi cricketers have played a big role in making New Zealand a hard nut to crack in the T20 version. “I can confidently tell you that all our 20 contracted players who play for New Zealand at the international level and another dozen others who are with our state teams – these are essentially our fringe players – go away to play in at least three franchise leagues during the year,” Mills says.
At present, there are nine New Zealanders (six players and three coaches) who are in the IPL, 11 in the Natwest Blast and The Hundred, and another four with the Caribbean Premier League. If anyone wants to learn how to remain competitive on the cricket field with limited resources, they don’t have to look beyond New Zealand Cricket.
Tradition of smart captains
Martin Crowe: He asked a spinner to open the innings and also employed a pinch-hitter to cash in on-field restrictions during the 1992 World Cup. Post-retirement, he also devised Cricket Max, a precursor to the modern-day T20 game.
Stephen Fleming: Blessed with a sharp mind, he is now one of the most sought-after coaches in the IPL.The manner in which he unleashed Craig McMillan on Steve Waugh in a Test match in Brisbane was an act of genius. In an attempt to exploit Waugh’s weakness with the short ball, Fleming employed a leg slip and got Craig McMillan from around the wicket. The Australian captain was caught on the crease with a barrage of short-pitched deliveries that Waugh took on the body. McMillian then slipped in a fuller delivery that he edged to wicket-keeper.
Brendon McCullum: Continued with Crowe’s template of providing blitzkrieg at the start of the innings. He also had an eye for spotting talent. His out-of-the-blue pick of Grant Eliot proved to be a masterstroke at the 2015 World Cup.
Kane Williamson: Armed with left-arm pacer Neil Wagner, Williamson exploited Steve Smith’s inherent weakness against the short-pitched deliveries. His decision to choke England in the World Cup final with Colin de Grandhomme was another example of his ingenuity.
Live on Star Sports: India vs New Zealand, Ist T20I 12.20pm
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