Kane and Baz: their leadership styles are different, but they have both led New Zealand the New Zealand way
Kane and Baz: their leadership styles are different, but they have both led New Zealand the New Zealand way
From whingers no one liked to opponents every one adores, New Zealand are the feel-good drama we all want to binge on
Third ball of the over, Brendon McCullum comes forward and misses.
McCullum has opened the batting in one of the biggest matches of his life. Middle stump skewed, he begins his trek back through one of the game's iconic venues.
Earlier that morning he had looked up at the mountain and not seen a wisp of cloud. If there is no tablecloth on Table Mountain, you bat first, he'd read. They were to face one of the most fearsome fast-bowling attacks on the planet, which could have given him pause, tablecloth or not. But McCullum, being McCullum, had been desperate to ram a stake into the ground. It is his first Test as captain.
The morning passes in a blur. Out on the field, a cacophony of clattered stumps, thin nicks, joyful whoops behind the wicket, and stadium pop. In the dressing room, thick, brooding silences between the ripping of velcro straps, and strings of muttered curse words.
There were no bollockings at the break. No high-flying pep talks. New Zealand were 45 all out inside 20 overs. "Nothing needed to be said," says coach Mike Hesson. Even if something did, no one had the words.
"You should be able to walk into any ground in the world, and regardless of what was on the scoreboard, think that New Zealand's on top because of the attitude"
At home, not many would have stayed up to watch. The team had long since begun to slip into irrelevance, barely holding the nation's attention during the ever-contracting window between rugby seasons. For those who still cared, the men's national team had become little more than an aggravation. Hosts agreed with incensed callers on Radio Sport: "Worst Black Caps side in my lifetime." In the four years before this match, New Zealand had lost 15 Tests to the six they had won. (Two of those victories had been against Zimbabwe, who had just returned from a six-year hiatus.) In ODIs, they had slipped to ninth, and in T20Is, eighth.
The previous year they had lost five successive Tests, their worst streak since the 1950s, and when they finally won a match, dove headlong into the most acrimonious sports controversy in the country in years.
What rankled was not so much the fact of Ross Taylor's sacking as captain as the manner of it. Taylor had had this grenade rolled at him several days before a Test series, so not only was he expected to lead in two more matches, he was also in Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of kilometres and several time zones away from the loved ones on whose support he might have leaned through such an ordeal.
In the weeks that followed, allegations of deception were levelled at Hesson. Had he always intended for Taylor to remain Test captain while giving up the limited-overs jobs, or only belatedly offered up a split captaincy (which Taylor declined) after Taylor produced match-winning innings worth 142 and 74 in Colombo?
Martin Crowe, a mentor and close friend to Taylor, had written in the aftermath that New Zealand Cricket had "destroyed the soul of Ross Taylor", and had "become worthless" as an organisation. He'd burned his New Zealand blazer in disgust. Taylor, clearly hurting, had chosen to stay home from the South Africa tour.
45 ways to say we suck: Vernon Philander was nearly unplayable in Cape Town in 2013, but the New Zealand leadership understood that it was time to look within themselves if they wanted to move past the rout
Carl Fourie / © Getty Images
45 ways to say we suck: Vernon Philander was nearly unplayable in Cape Town in 2013, but the New Zealand leadership understood that it was time to look within themselves if they wanted to move past the rout Carl Fourie / © Getty Images
In response to 45 all out, South Africa put on 107 for the second wicket, 104 for the third, and finish the day at 252 for 3. New Zealand's bus ride to the hotel is as deathly quiet as anyone can remember.
Back in his hotel room, McCullum does what he always does when he gets in - grabs a beer from the fridge and settles in to mull the day over. Before long, there is a knock at the door. Then another. And one more after that.
"Most teams sort of become a bit of an image of their captain, right?" McCullum would know. In some of the more unforgettable matches of his era, New Zealand were not merely aggressive - they were manic.
The fielding was the most arresting of his hallmarks. "One of the big things was that you chase the ball to the boundary, all the way to the boundary," McCullum says. "That's a visual thing. You should be able to walk into any ground in the world, and regardless of what was on the scoreboard, think that New Zealand's on top because of the attitude."
On days four and five in a Test, while other teams sometimes appeared to be dragging the meat of their own carcasses around the field, New Zealand were routinely supercharged, spurred by something elemental. A shot would skim past gully and three fielders would peel off, drawn urgently, like magnets to iron. No one gave chase more intensely than McCullum. He threw himself full tilt at the rope, head first, arms out, the body coiling as it crashed into advertising hoardings. "Holy hell, that's gonna bloody hurt," team manager Mike Sandle recalls thinking.
Tim Southee remembers the fields that were so attacking, they sometimes bordered on surreal. Four slips plus two gullies on occasion - two-thirds of the team's fielding resources deployed behind the wicket. "Even in a one-day game, a batter comes out, and they turn around and see three or four slips in there, their mindset might change - Brendon was all about those mind games." In the 2015 World Cup group-stage match against England, Southee bowled to unrelenting fields, taking 7 for 33. McCullum then belted his second ball for six over backward point, and walloped eight fours and six further sixes on his way to a 77 off 25 that demolished his own previous record for fastest fifty in a World Cup. New Zealand ran down a target of 124 with 37.4 overs to spare. "That's just how I wanted to see the game played," McCullum explains. "Ever since I was a kid."
"There were probably some selfish behaviours in the team. These guys are professional cricketers: if you don't get picked, you don't get paid"
New Zealand scythed through that World Cup, razor-sharp, but a little over two years prior, that was not how the side McCullum had inherited played. A major overhaul had been needed "to have everybody on the bus facing the right way" he says. But along the way, a match played in appalling circumstances also saw New Zealand commit more wholeheartedly than their captain could have envisioned.
In November 2014, New Zealand had been clobbered by Pakistan in Abu Dhabi and were staring at a series defeat when some tragic news came in on the second morning of the final Test of the series, in Sharjah. "I looked around the dressing room and had a team of broken men that didn't want to be playing cricket," McCullum says. "It had lost meaning." New Zealand had just heard of Phil Hughes' death in Sydney, days after Hughes was struck by a bouncer. Although some players knew Hughes a little, most did not. This was shock as well as grief. The sport they played could hurt, even seriously injure… but death?
The teams negotiated a day off from the Test. Increasingly, though, it appeared as if the match would have to continue, even though, as Hesson says, "no one was even close to being in that frame of mind". McCullum, faced with leading his team in a match no one wanted to play, called New Zealand sports psychologist Gilbert Enoka, with whom the team had worked in the past. "All your preparation, all you've ever thought about in cricket, just throw it out the window for this one game," Enoka said. McCullum conveyed this to his team. Whatever happened in the match, there would be no consequences. Players could warm up however they wanted, bowl as they felt, bat in whichever way felt natural, for the pure joy of playing, no plans. None, that is, aside from refusing to bowl intentional bouncers. "As soon as someone suggested it, just felt like the right thing," Hesson says.
The remainder of that Test was as affirming as it was unusual. Having given away 281 for 3 on the first day, New Zealand took the remaining seven wickets for 70 - sorrow having settled differently with Pakistan perhaps. With the bat, New Zealand attacked almost heedlessly. McCullum led, as ever, with a 188-ball 202, and Kane Williamson hit 192, before four others made half-centuries. The team amassed 690 at a run rate of 4.81. Seven batters cleared the rope - their 22 sixes the record for most in a Test innings.
Having to continue playing a Test while coming to terms with Phil Hughes' death, New Zealand decided to not worry about the result
Having to continue playing a Test while coming to terms with Phil Hughes' death, New Zealand decided to not worry about the result © AFP
They would win that game by an innings and 80 runs, dismissing Pakistan for 259 on the fifth (really, fourth) day, but beyond the victory, something fundamental was uncovered. "We sat in the room for hours afterwards and just talked," Hesson says. "It showed us how we could play the game if you're not so worried about consequence. This was extreme, but it reinforced some of those things we were already trying to do."
T he first knock on McCullum's door in Cape Town back in January 2013 is from Hesson. The coach had had this thought: "You can either sit here and wallow, or you can be a part of the solution."
Less than six months before, when he had started, Hesson realised he had walked into a team in search of something. Security? Maybe. "There were probably some selfish behaviours in the team," he says of his early months. Partly this was down to players fearing for their places - the selectors rifling through combinations in search of the outfit that would catapult New Zealand out of its rut. "Someone might get a 30 or a 40 and feel like they'd done their job and were going to get picked for the next game," he says. "There was an element of looking after yourself. These guys are professional cricketers: if you don't get picked, you don't get paid." If the natural state of a New Zealand cricket team is to be greater than the sum of its parts, here was one running in the opposite direction.
Some time later, Hesson would bump into match officials at a bar in Dambulla following a one-dayer there, and be told that umpires disliked standing in New Zealand matches. "You're a bunch of whingers," the umpires would say. Hesson resisted this description initially, but later, it began to make sense. The team had begun to see enemies everywhere, blaming everybody but themselves.
Then this question, the answer to which would define the team's next decade: "So what does it mean to play like Kiwis?"
Soon after Hesson gets to McCullum's room, Sandle joins them. A former policeman who had managed rugby teams before becoming New Zealand's manager, he wanted to check on McCullum following that abject first day as Test captain. Bob Carter, the assistant coach, arrives not long after.
No one says much at first. The obvious thing perhaps would be to debrief - pick the dismissals apart, discuss pitch conditions, or maybe even give in to the temptation to partially acquit themselves by running over how masterful Vernon Philander had been. South Africa were the No. 1 Test side at the time, fresh from a 1-0 series victory in Australia. In the last match of that tour, they had rolled the opposition for 163 in Perth.
But if the losses of the last few years and the furore over Taylor's sacking had had the effect of tensing New Zealand up, making them brittle, 45 all out was the sledgehammer that shattered them. There could be no piecing together from here. What point is there retooling batting plans or reviewing footage when something fundamental has so obviously ruptured? "Ground zero," McCullum would later call this moment.
Eventually, over beers, they begin to open up. No pen and clipboard - just talking. They turn their gazes inward for a change.
Through the entirety of the 2015 World Cup, the air in New Zealand was electric. In Dunedin, hulking middle-aged men roared into each other's ears. "How f**king good is Brendon McCullum?" As rivals Australia collapsed against Trent Boult, raucous chants went up in Eden Park's heaving stands: "You're worse than England!" For eight weeks, cricket took over the airwaves, and very nearly pushed rugby out of the national consciousness, the public swept up in the team's breathless, unbeaten run, until the last match in the country produced a semi-final for the ages - Grant Elliott blasting a six off the penultimate ball to send Eden Park into an ecstatic frenzy while players charged the field, Taylor dashing out in flip-flops.
The Black Caps are welcomed home warmly after being runners-up in the 2015 World Cup
Dean Rowland / © Getty Images
The Black Caps are welcomed home warmly after being runners-up in the 2015 World Cup Dean Rowland / © Getty Images
"You'd feel it every time you were moving between cities," Hesson says. "You used to get one or two kids staring, or coming up for a selfie or an autograph or whatever. But during that World Cup you'd go through an airport and everyone was making sure you knew they were behind you."
Partly this was down to McCullum having hit peak charisma. In the previous year, he had thumped two rapid Test double-hundreds and a balls-to-the-wall 195, but crucially also produced one of New Zealand's greatest rearguards in an epic act of self-denial. Defying India to seal a series win, he batted out 559 deliveries. His triple hundred, at the Basin Reserve, was New Zealand's first.
By then, even outspoken critics were swooning. Following their five-Test losing streak in 2012, Crowe had taken a dim view of McCullum, recalling in a column an incident on national radio when McCullum had apparently said: "We stopped listening to Crowe years ago." Following the triple, Crowe was effervescent. Not only had McCullum's 302 helped him evict the ghosts of his own 299, Crowe wrote, but New Zealand had experienced a "euphoric awakening" under McCullum, who was a "true leader, marching his men forward with exemplary and extraordinary example".
The world couldn't help but take notice - McCullum making journalists giddy at the 2015 World Cup by reeling off lines such as "greatest time of our lives" to describe his team's campaign, while speaking almost obscenely well of oppositions, even those they had just shamed on the field. When, after eight consecutive victories, they eventually lost in that final, McCullum was insistent that his team would keep retirement announcements under wraps until Australia's victory had been sufficiently celebrated. The "nice guys of cricket", pretty much everyone called them.
"I was able to add an element of the aggression and confidence, but I was never going to add that level of consistency. Under Kane's captaincy they've been able to have that"
If anything, the guys have only seemed nicer since. Under Williamson, New Zealand have been methodical rather than manic - that McCullum line about teams becoming like their captains holding true. ("Kane's not like me - you sit down with him for a meal and it takes him 45 minutes to finish.") But there has been an effortlessness to the grace with which New Zealand have leapt up the rankings. When they clinched a close game at the 2019 World Cup, several members of the team went first to console the distraught Carlos Brathwaite, the celebratory huddle almost an afterthought. The repeated misfortunes they suffered in the last few overs of the tournament's final were almost traumatic. And yet there was not a single lashing out.
Overpaid. Under-delivering. Soft. Prima donnas. Laughing stock. Losers.
In the hotel room in Cape Town, McCullum, Hesson, Sandle, and Carter are sketching out a portrait of their team as they felt perceived by New Zealand's public. It is a conversation tinged by no little self-loathing, the men peering through an unforgiving lens.
Cricket had always been one of New Zealand's two favourite sports, but in early 2013, it is an exceedingly distant second. A little over 14 months before, the All Blacks had won the World Cup, narrowly prevailing over France in a tense Auckland final to break a 24-year drought and spark euphoric nationwide celebrations. In the weeks that followed the victory, it would be revealed that the captain, Richie McCaw - already an object of legendary adulation - had played part of the tournament with a broken bone in his foot. McCaw had hidden the injury from media, team-mates, and even coaches, in order to lead the team in the knockouts.
In fact, right at this moment, New Zealand is bursting with exemplary athletes. Auckland-based men's basketball team the Breakers have just won two successive titles in the Trans-Tasman franchise competition. The New Zealand netball team had been gold medallists at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and runners-up at the 2011 World Championships. The 2012 Olympics brought six golds and 13 medals in total, putting New Zealand fourth (behind three Caribbean nations) on the medals-per-capita table. Even the occasionally lampooned men's football team had recently had a moment, famously holding Italy to a draw in the 2010 World Cup. But for the consistent class of the women's team, cricket is at risk of being overrun.
Going Aussie: Scott Styris and Co sledge South Africa during the 2011 World Cup
Daniel Berehulak / © Getty Images
Going Aussie: Scott Styris and Co sledge South Africa during the 2011 World Cup Daniel Berehulak / © Getty Images
Is it even possible to stay ahead of so much sporting excellence? "No, but I don't think our country expects us to be the All Blacks," someone in the room says.
"That's right, they just expect us to be tough to beat."
McCullum, who grew up in south Dunedin, a rougher neighbourhood than most in the country, believes he knows something about toughness. "It's not about beating your chest," he says. "It's about getting back up after you've failed. You've got to have another go."
When they wonder aloud why their team have not lived this out, they come to this question: "Are we trying to be something we're not?"
In the 1970s and '80s, New Zealand looked to England for cues. Not only was county cricket the surest (and sometimes the only) avenue to a comfortable paycheck for New Zealand cricketers, the UK was, in addition, a cultural and cricketing touchstone - the mothership from which much of the New Zealand population descended, as well as the nation whose pitch conditions most closely matched their own.
But when Australia's great team arose out of the late '90s, something shifted. New Zealand began to adopt a little of their aggro. At moments in the aughts, the team threw themselves so wholly into verbal assaults that on-field exchanges and press-conference sniping characterised entire series. Perhaps the most notable example came at home in early 2004, when Stephen Fleming breathed fire on no less a figure than Graeme Smith. In one match, a venomous Fleming tirade unsettled Smith before the opener even crossed the boundary to begin a chase.
Not only had McCullum's 302 helped him evict the ghosts of his own 299, Martin Crowe wrote, but New Zealand had experienced a "euphoric awakening" under McCullum
McCullum, who made his Test debut during that tour, recalls being proud of the reputation for arrogance he had developed in those early years - a south Dunedin boy playing more or less to type. In 2006 he had had this to say when he completed the run-out of Muttiah Muralitharan after the batter wandered out of his crease to congratulate Kumar Sangakkara on reaching hundred: "After 109 Test matches you know better than to walk out of your ground to celebrate a guy's hundred when the ball's still alive." When in the days that followed, the Sri Lanka captain accused New Zealand of being unsportsmanlike, Fleming backed his young wicketkeeper: "It's a mistake by them and they covered it up by taking the moral high ground."
Years later, Australia's golden age had ended, and yet there New Zealand were, in imitation mode - a knock-off of a declining brand. Less brash now than he once had been, this thought strikes McCullum in the Cape Town hotel room: "Look, we might get a good result playing like somebody else - we might even put a few performances together. But what we've been trying hasn't given us sustained success."
What's more, the group realise, the whole exercise had been self-defeating. While New Zealand were poring over Australian blueprints, going as far as to hire Aussie talent in backroom and strategic positions, the Australia team and much of the rest of the world had continued to evolve, leaving New Zealand with methods that were two years out of date.
"What we're doing isn't us," someone says.
And then this question, the answer to which would define the team's next decade: "So what does it mean to play like Kiwis?"
When the men in that room think back to what was said, they remember words like "humble", "hard-working", "innovative", and "gracious". New Zealand is no utopia - it is beset by historic injustices, as well as racism, and inequality, though many New Zealanders will argue - perhaps fairly - that these flaws trouble their nation less than most others. But this almost doesn't matter; what was important to McCullum and Co was the national ideal to which to aspire.
Head of the pack: McCullum (at silly point) shifted himself and the team towards the idea of being aggressive in attitude and not in behaviour
Phil Walter / © Getty Images
Head of the pack: McCullum (at silly point) shifted himself and the team towards the idea of being aggressive in attitude and not in behaviour Phil Walter / © Getty Images
"We realised," McCullum would later say, "that it wasn't my cricket team or Mike Hesson's cricket team or the cricket team of any of the captains that had gone before. It was New Zealand's cricket team. And at the time, the way we were doing things, we were far from being a representation of our people."
When the meeting in the hotel room ends, there is an unwinnable Test still hanging overhead, but there is also clarity. Over the course of several hours, the four men had discussed specific players they would invest in, support staff they wanted around long term, and a strategic direction they wished to embrace.
But they would leave with something immeasurably more profound: an identity.
From the outside, the shift seemed so drastic it was whiplash-inducing. Was this not the team that descended into a dogfight in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final, making a walking dartboard out of Faf du Plessis, even the 12th man stopping by in his fluoro vest to hurl abuse? The side whose batters were often visibly enraged after copping questionable decisions? Whose bowlers sometimes followed up bouncers by raiding batters' personal space?
"When things aren't working for you, you can be pretty receptive to change," Hesson says of the period in which New Zealand's behaviour turned almost on a dime. "It's really difficult to sledge the opposition when you're ninth in the world. You're not doing it from a position of strength." Partly the change was driven by pragmatism. "We were wasting a lot of our energy focusing on our next sledge. So we thought: 'Why don't we use that energy to enhance our performance instead?'"
For McCullum, it was almost as if the team finally stepped into its own skin. "Once we started embracing the behaviours we talked about, it was actually really easy, because that's just who we are as people. We had probably been suppressing that trying to be someone we weren't on the big international stage."
Eventually, NZC began to understand the inadequacy of their first-class surfaces and relaid most of them. It was almost as if only upon finding Williamson that it occurred to them that it might be helpful to have more like him
On Sangakkara's final tour of New Zealand, he struck a double-hundred in Wellington. McCullum led the team in applauding him off the field. New Zealand had given up a 135-run first-innings lead by that stage, but they then racked up 524 for 5, blasted Sri Lanka out, and won by 193 runs.
Before Williamson was the run-making automaton we now know, before Crowe declared him "probably our greatest ever batsman", before the spectacular first-class seasons of his late teenage years, and before he even turned out for men's provincial representative teams at age 14, Williamson trained with his dad Brett in the nets near their home in oceanside Tauranga. It was then that Brett passed to his son something vital; something that set Williamson up as well as set him apart.
New Zealand's domestic pitches of the aughts were almost uniformly limited - seaming but slow. They produced limited players. There is some generalising here, but in essence, fast bowlers would bowl full, land it on the seam, and have the pitch get them wickets. Batters would lunge forward almost by muscle memory, because to kill the sideways movement was to survive, and often the only thing that needed to be done to survive. When players graduated to the quicker, bouncier surfaces seen in internationals, or encountered decks that took turn, a world of new skills had to be acquired on the fly.
Brett had read somewhere that New Zealand batters relied too much on the front foot, and perhaps sensing the inevitability of his son's trajectory, had set about feeding him shorter lengths until back-foot strokes wove themselves into his technique. The fruits of this you could see even in Williamson's earliest international innings, particularly in that back-foot punch. There was a rapid picking of the length, an effortless shifting of weight, a spine that snapped straight as the knees sprang him up, toes almost always in the air upon contact, the ball scorching a path anywhere between backward point and extra cover.
Can we clone Kane? With more than 7000 runs at an average over 50 and 24 Test hundreds, Williamson is easily New Zealand's most dominant batter of all time
Hagen Hopkins / © Getty Images
Can we clone Kane? With more than 7000 runs at an average over 50 and 24 Test hundreds, Williamson is easily New Zealand's most dominant batter of all time Hagen Hopkins / © Getty Images
Eventually New Zealand Cricket began to understand the inadequacy of their first-class surfaces and relaid most of them with faster-playing Patumahoe soil until better-rounded batters came through, such as, say, Henry Nicholls. But this was years after Williamson had not merely become established at the top level but had begun to prosper so consistently his name was taken alongside batting's greatest practitioners. It was almost as if only upon finding Williamson did it occur to New Zealand it might be helpful to have more like him.
And where the New Zealand team had had to have conversations about laying off the sledging, Williamson had essentially been a child when he decided the insults grown men flung his way when he played for senior teams were usually pathetic. "The game's the game, and you should enjoy it," he once said in an interview. Some great batters are spurred by opposition sprays, abuse shovelled like coal into a personal furnace. For Williamson, who at the crease appears attuned only to the hard physics of batting, verbals have always seemed wholly irrelevant.
In the history of cricket selection, can there have been many more straightforward calls than to name Williamson captain? Not merely because, as McCullum says, "Kane was a leader the moment he walked into the team" but for how he embodied so many of the virtues New Zealand have embraced before anyone even knew they needed embracing. Williamson, by the way, had been 20 years and two days old when he debuted for his country.
Restrained in victory and defeat? Williamson doesn't have a poker face so much as a poker personality. Respect for oppositions and love for fans? He once ran off during a drinks break in a practice match near Colombo to take a bite of the birthday cake spectators had brought for him, then fed a fan too before returning. Committed in the field? There is arguably no better catcher at gully. Hard-working? Of course. A team player? Duh.
"It's not about beating your chest. It's about getting back up after you've failed. You've got to have another go"
"One of the things I'm proud about is that I left at the time I did, because the team was at a level that if they were going to have long-term sustainable success, they needed to find something different," McCullum says. "I was able to add an element of the aggression and confidence, but I was never going to add that level of consistency. Under Kane's captaincy they've been able to have that."
McCullum feels he has "more personality" than Williamson, but it was Williamson who most colourfully described the difference. Asked once what it was like to bat with McCullum during one of McCullum's most explosive innings, he replied: "I kinda felt like I was the library in a theme park."
Essentially there is no aspect of New Zealand's transformation that Williamson was not abreast of, as if he had been sent back from the future to light their way and lead them post-McCullum. Under him New Zealand have won 21 and lost only eight Tests - the win-loss ratio of 2.62 second only to that of Virat Kohli since 2015, made the final of an ODI World Cup and the semi-final of a T20 World Cup. And if you go by rankings, New Zealand are the top Test side, the top ODI side, third in T20Is.
Southee brings the hooping outswing, Boult moves it the other way, Neil Wagner bowls NeilWagnerline, and oh, hello, another 20 wickets have fallen. If you're after the engine room, look no further. There are 800-plus wickets right here.
Earlier this month New Zealand made six changes to their XI at Edgbaston and still won the Test inside four days to clinch their first series win in England since 1999
Mike Egerton / © Getty Images
Earlier this month New Zealand made six changes to their XI at Edgbaston and still won the Test inside four days to clinch their first series win in England since 1999 Mike Egerton / © Getty Images
They have been aided by faster home wickets since the tracks were relaid. New Zealand seamers averaged 30.62 at home between 2000 and the end of 2012, compared to 26.10 since the start of 2013. But in limited overseas assignments, these three fast bowlers have also been instrumental to away victories - 14 wickets between them in Bridgetown, 11 in Colombo, and nine in Leeds.
This is almost inarguably New Zealand's greatest seam attack, and yet, while none of the three shows signs of slowing down, there now seem to be the beginnings of a production line. In the last year we have seen the rocket-fuelled arrival of Kyle Jamieson. In the shorter formats, Lockie Ferguson has made a charge. There is no less promise on other fronts - Devon Conway and Daryll Mitchell have made excellent starts to their international careers; Tom Blundell is poised to take the gloves from BJ Watling.
Partly, New Zealand have developed this talent by doing the boring things - improving pitches and facilities around the country, ensuring NZC works closely with the six provincial associations to maximise resources, maintaining a world-class high performance centre. But there's more to it; no part of the nation's cricket going untouched by that conversation in Cape Town.
"What we're seeing now is that the next generation has come through inspired by the cricket and the players that they've seen," McCullum says. "Rather than choosing rugby, or rugby league or these other sports, these amazing athletes are now choosing cricket. You think of a six-foot-seven Kyle Jamieson - he could be off playing basketball, he could be off doing any other sport. He wants to be a cricketer."
When they compete for Test cricket's greatest prize in Southampton, New Zealand will play India, the greatest superpower their sport has known, with a vast player pool to draw upon, and an internal machinery that dwarfs their own. And yet it is New Zealand who in the last nine years orchestrated a sharper rise than any in men's cricket, playing in two major finals, thrilling an audience far greater than the five million at home, all with an unblinking, almost impossible grace. If they have a daunting assignment ahead of them now, it is no more daunting than the truth that once faced them: that low moment in which they found themselves.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf
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