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By Partab Ramchand
Watching New Zealand come agonizingly close to making the semifinals of the Twenty20 World Cup and then losing out on Net Run Rate makes me wonder whether they will be able to shake off the ``bridesmaid’’ tag they have had for so long in international cricket. Except for one glorious occasion in Nairobi in 2000 when Chris Cairns powered them to the Champions Trophy title with an unbeaten hundred against India, New Zealand have always been the ``almost there’’ team. They must surely be the record holders as far as semifinal spots in various competitions are concerned but that’s where the record breaking stops. In the Fifty50 World Cup they have been semifinalists in 1975, 1979, 1992, 1999 and 2007. Their campaign in the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup was halted at the penultimate round and this has been the case also in the Champions Trophy in 2004 and 2006. In short the punter can wager a huge amount on the Kiwis to reach the semifinals but he
will not wager even a single cent on them advancing further.
I well remember how in the fifties and sixties New Zealand were clubbed along with India and Pakistan as the weaker sides in international cricket and this was borne out by results. Of course those were the days of Test cricket alone and despite producing greats such as Charlie Dempster, Martin Donnelly, Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid they always came a cropper against the stronger teams and frequently occupied the cellar position.
Things turned for the better in the seventies. The gap between the top three – England, Australia and West Indies – and the bottom three narrowed and New Zealand like India and Pakistan showed better results. This was the time when ODIs made their appearance and also a cricketer by the name of Richard Hadlee. If Sunil Gavaskar inspired India to great feats and Imran Khan did likewise as far as Pakistan cricket was concerned it was Hadlee to whom New Zealanders looked up to for lofty deeds. But as the competition intensified in international cricket there was only so much that even a peerless cricketer like Hadlee could achieve. He carried New Zealand – a team with one really great player but others only in the good category - on his able shoulders for years principally on the strength of his swing and seam bowling but also with his under rated batting. In Test matches they scored home and away victories over every other cricketing nation and became
opponents who could not be brushed aside anymore. In ODIs too New Zealand performed admirably but somehow lacked that extra effort to be acknowledged as serious title contenders.
By the time Hadlee retired in 1990 New Zealand were a force to reckon with in international cricket and their best chance to win the Fifty50 World Cup came as co-hosts in 1992. They notched up seven straight victories to beat the record of six set up by the West Indies in 1983 and just as they looked like the team to beat they faltered in the – you guessed right - semifinals going down to Pakistan. Since then they have again not been able to break the semifinal jinx except as I said at Nairobi in 2000. India were the favourites going into the final and were in control for a major period before the special talent of Cairns bloomed and he helped his team snatch a famous last over victory.
Would this then be the breakthrough triumph cricket followers wondered? It was not to be and over the last decade New Zealand have continued to be the team with the ``bridesmaid’’ and ``almost there’’ tags. They certainly have players who are acknowledged to be among the best in the game and during this period they have been led by two shrewd and charismatic captains in Stephen Fleming and Daniel Vettori the latter being arguably the best New Zealand cricketer after Hadlee. All they need is that little bit of extra spark to raise the level of their game when it matters most – like at Nairobi ten years ago.
It is nice to be opponents that no team can take lightly and New Zealand in all three formats are a force to be reckoned with. But it is nicer to have a trophy or two on your shelf. Vettori and his men have their next chance in the World Cup in the sub continent next year and it will be interesting to see whether that tournament marks a turnabout in their fortunes.
They certainly have the nucleus of a very good side and perhaps Vettori who has emerged as a father figure can inspire them to play above their potential.