Are New Zealand ready to be favourites?
Amid all the public euphoria over New Zealand’s build-up to the ICC Cricket World Cup opener against Sri Lanka, one thought has invaded my mind above all others: how would the Black Caps deal with being the hunted rather than the hunter?
In past tournaments, the side has always played the role of the plucky underdogs, punching above their weight and with nothing to lose, a side not expected to go all the way and so able to go out with a more relaxed frame of mind, in contrast to teams that were viewed as genuine title contenders.
It was a position the side was able to enjoy the last time the World Cup came to these shores, in 1992, when they ambushed Allan Border’s fancied Australia side on the opening day of the tournament at Eden Park and went on to reach the semifinals.
But now, thanks to the exceptional recent form of Brendon McCullum’s side, the roles are reversed and everyone is expecting big things from the Black Caps.
How the players and support staff handle that tag of being one of the favourites, especially early on, will be crucial to determining how well or how badly this campaign goes.
On the plus side, and from my position outside the team bubble, I am not detecting any over-confidence or complacency despite victories home and away against Pakistan, plus the convincing series win over the first-up opponents Sri Lanka.
What I am seeing is optimism and anticipation, with the players, staff and public leaning on the experiences of the New Zealand rugby union squad that won their own World Cup on home soil in 2011.
The All Blacks won that tournament to end a drought at the top table of more than two decades but, having gone into the event as overwhelming favourites, the eventual victory proved to be anything but a cakewalk and that has provided a healthy dose of realism for the New Zealand sporting public to munch on ahead of the cricketing action getting underway.
Much of the pre-tournament chat in the media has centred around the idea that the team has momentum but for me that is the most overused word in sport, and cricket in particular.
Past successes – or so-called momentum – counts for nothing if you are 10 for 2 or the opposition is 200 for no wicket; more important is confidence. Confidence to know your game plan and to stick to it, confidence in your ability to adapt if the situation demands it, and confidence in yourself and your team-mates to deliver under pressure.
After all, the New Zealand side of 1992 that stunned the world with its form in that World Cup had no momentum going into that tournament. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it had just been thumped 3-0 by England in the lead-up.
But what was important was that at the start of the tournament the players knew their roles, several key players, chief among them Martin Crowe, rose to the occasion, and that created confidence that led to success. That, in turn, created momentum, but it was the confidence to succeed that was the starting point.
This New Zealand team undoubtedly has that confidence as, during the matches against Sri Lanka and Pakistan over the past month or so, they have done it all: they have won from tricky situations, they have won easily, they have won batting first and they have won batting second. As a lead-in – and that is all it is, a lead-in to the main course – you could not ask for more.
It has actually been the perfect preparation and there is a case for saying that the final warm-up matches were an unwanted distraction and that the squad would have been better off heading home for a few days to switch off and freshen up.
That, of course, ignores the needs of the other sides and were the boot on the other foot and were New Zealand the visiting side then McCullum’s men would have expected warm-up matches to be played against the host side so that is fair enough. And a crushing win against South Africa was a great statement of intent ahead of the start of the real action.
New Zealand’s side is now a settled one. Most of the side picks itself and the only tough call is which of the seamers miss out. In that respect I am glad I am not a selector as Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Adam Milne, Kyle Mills and Mitchell McClenaghan all have good cases for inclusion.
As for Sri Lanka, New Zealand would take comfort from facing them, as they are a known quantity, following on from the recent series between the two teams.
But, thanks to that series, it is now a case of role reversal from the norm, and now it would be Sri Lanka that I expect to be playing with no fear rather than New Zealand, the traditional underdogs.
After all, what have Sri Lanka got to lose? They were beaten up in that recent series 4-2 and that means there is no great expectation on them to do well in the tournament opener.
But with batsmen of the quality and experience of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews, plus the pace bowling of Lasith Malinga, you write them off at your peril.
Sri Lanka would know everything before 14 February is irrelevant. And they can approach this match by saying ‘We may have lost a few, but that means we are due now.’ They would also know all about the expectation of hosting this tournament and the pressure that brings – they did it in 2011, remember – and so they can use that to their advantage to find chinks in the New Zealand armour.
It all adds up to an intriguing cocktail to get this great tournament underway.