The World Cup Final!

28 March 2015

In a few hours New Zealand will walk onto the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the biggest match in this history of the sport in my country.

After ten tournaments and 40 years we’ve finally…finally…made it through to the World Cup Final.

The law of averages suggests that we were going to make the final eventually, and we’ve come close to stumbling into it through six semi-final defeats.  But even if we did squeeze through to the main event in the past, we wouldn’t have deserved it. We almost certainly would have lost.

New Zealand has usually been an average cricket team, occasionally a very good one and often very, very bad. We’ve cultivated a reputation of being grafters and underdogs – losers who can give bigger nations a good game, but still lose to them.

This is all I’ve ever know in 20 years of supporting the Black Caps. There have been isolated moments to celebrate: Our first test series win in England, scoring four centuries in an innings in Perth, Shane Bond’s short reign as the world’s best bowler, watching us run down 300 twice in a row against Australia in 2007, Brendon McCullum scoring a century in a Twenty20 match in Christchruch.

But these moments of glory were aberrations. They stood out because they were so rare. While other countries produced great teams, the best we could do was produce occasional imitations of great teams. We lost more tests than we won and we still couldn’t get past the semi-finals of the World Cup.

Until this week.

The semi-final victory against South Africa was the greatest cricket match I’ve ever seen. I’ve tried explaining cricket to Europeans before, and tried to articulate how much emotion and adrenaline can take place in during an epic game.
 
It lasts six hours but the most crucial moments take place in seconds. Every moment between is full of tension, pressure and tactical battles. My dad used to tell me off for asking “who’s winning” a cricket game – you don’t really know until the end.
 
We haven’t fumbled into the final. We’ve charged there. We haven’t lost a game at the World Cup. We haven’t lost a test series for almost two years. For the first time ever we have a pool of players who can genuinely compete with the best teams in the world. For the first time ever, we are one of the best teams in the world.
 
And that feels amazing. It’s surreal to go into a New Zealand game expecting to win. A few years ago, musing on the nature of nationalism, I wrote that supporting the Black Caps was much more rewarding than supporting the All Blacks because the victories weren’t treated as a national rite. Since I wrote that, things have changed. No New Zealander ever realistically expected our cricket team to be this good this fast and none of us are taking it for granted.
 
This NZ side represents the best qualities of Kiwis – camaraderie, resolve, ambition and respect. They’ve found a way to excel at their sport without being dickheads about it. They’ve worked hard and they deserve their success.

One year ago, against India, Brendon McCullum did something no New Zealander had ever done before. He scored 300 runs in an innings.  It helped us save the test match and win the series. It was a great moment but it could easily have been just another aberration. One year later Kane Williamson did almost exactly the same thing. He scored 242* against Sri Lanka to save a test match and win the series.  Two weeks ago Martin Guptill scored 237 to help beat the West Indies in the world cup quarterfinals. Winning has become a habit, and it feels really strange.

All through this tournament I’ve been thinking I just want us to make the final - just to go a little further than we ever have before. But now we’re there, it feels disingenuous to be happy with anything less than victory. This team has decided they’re no longer content with being underdogs and the least we can do as fans is respect that. I want – and expect - us to win.
 
But even if we don't, we'll still have the experience of seeing our guys walk onto the MCG to contest the biggest game in NZ Cricket history. We will cheer, grimace and  For the first time ever, we deserve it - players, fans and New Zealanders everywhere.