Cricket World Cup: The miracle of New Zealand – a side that simply shouldn't be in Sunday's final

If you didn’t think New Zealand would reach the final of the Cricket World Cup, then it turns out you weren’t alone. With the game scheduled to be played in the middle of the night, you might have expected the pubs and sports bars in the nation’s capital to be packed in the early hours of Monday morning. One problem. “It takes 20 working days for a late liquor licensing application to be processed,” a spokesperson for Wellington City Council told AFP. “Obviously no-one in Wellington thought we’d get to the final, because no-one has asked.”

Ah, well. At least, in a curious parallel to events on this side of the world, fans of the Black Caps will be able to watch the game on free-to-air television, after the satellite broadcaster Sky Sport (unconnected to the British broadcaster) agreed to share the rights with the terrestrial broadcaster Prime. Still, it’s a reminder that for all the sustained excellence of Kane Williamson’s team, for the most part they seem to operate in a curious vacuum, one that extends even to their own public.

In a nation in thrall to rugby union and the all-conquering All Blacks, cricket is only the 10th most popular participation sport amongst 13-18 year-olds: behind badminton, just ahead of futsal. Its television rights sell for a tiny fraction of the billions lavished on competitions such as the Indian Premier League and the Ashes. Its Test crowds are tiny to the point of irrelevance. Its financial viability depends almost entirely on luring India over for a tour every few years or so.

The economic realities of world cricket, in which money flows ruthlessly towards England and Australia and India most of all, with smaller nations reduced to a sort of feeder status, was supposed to have put the likes of New Zealand back in their box for good. Between them, the Big Three have provided the last five World Cup winners and are scheduled to host every major ICC men’s event from 2015 to 2023.

The point is this: New Zealand shouldn’t really be here. They are, in many ways, the afterthought of world cricket, a status that goes back decades, to the era when Australia would refuse to play them and England would only visit as a sort of valedictory epilogue to Ashes tours. And yet here they are: international cricket’s smallest nation by population, in a second consecutive World Cup final. Amid all the rightful hoopla over Eoin Morgan’s England, New Zealand’s defiance of sporting gravity is cricket’s quiet miracle.

It’s a success that has been decades in the making. Even Brendon McCullum, perhaps the country’s most famous cricketer, began his career in Otago earning little more than beer money (“a pie, a pint and a punt”, as he put it), and shifting furniture in his spare time to make ends meet. At one point, when the country’s top players went on strike in a pay dispute, he has his wife were forced to sleep on Mike Hesson’s floor for two months.

Even now, in relatively flush times, with the country’s top players able to supplement their earnings in overseas Twenty20 leagues, they remain financial minnows of the world game. This week it was reported that Williamson’s side are on a £200,000 per man bonus if they triumph in Sunday’s final. Which sounds pretty lush until you consider that England’s top players, by contrast, take home roughly £1 million a year in basic salary alone.

Which does appear spectacularly unfair, given the open debt English cricket owes New Zealand. It was their memorable 2015 series, after all, which ushered in England’s new white-ball dawn, with Ben Stokes’s Test century at Lord’s followed in short order by a barrage of previously unthinkable 50-over totals by both sides. Watching McCullum’s side come within sniffing distance of a first World Cup earlier that year, Morgan realised that New Zealand offered the template he wanted to follow. “Under McCullum, New Zealand embodied fun,” he would later say. “Playing against them, we were a little bit jealous.”

And even as Sunday’s game looms into view, the general consensus is that England will pull off what McCullum’s side never could: the New Zealand model, but backed with genuine financial might, a far bigger player pool and the benefits of mass immigration. Even amid the broad admiration for the likes of Williamson and Trent Boult and Ross Taylor, some of the media coverage in the aftermath of England’s semi-final win has unwittingly cast New Zealand as the stooges in the circus, helpful auxiliaries in English cricket’s tale of well-funded redemption.

In a way, it’s a status entirely in keeping with the recent history of New Zealand. They were the country that was never supposed to reach a World Cup final. That was never going to surpass the thrill of 2015. That was never meant to get past India in the semi-final. Even now, there are plenty who see their presence at Lord’s on Sunday as evidence of England’s blessings. It would be the most dangerous delusion of all.

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