Brendon McCullum and the New Zealand team at the World Cup reception at Queens Wharf
© Getty Images


New zeal, timeless recipe

What do New Zealand have that others don't? Egalitarianism, creativity and an enlightened administration

Tim Wigmore  |  

"Holy f**king shitballs this is the best day of my life." Nothing better distilled New Zealand's World Cup esprit de corps than Jimmy Neesham's tweet after a six from Grant Elliott - the man who had squeezed him out of the squad - took New Zealand to their first World Cup final. The moment spoke of far more than Neesham's character. It highlighted the camaraderie instilled by Mike Hesson and Brendon McCullum, under whom the team had completed an extraordinary transformation.

In December 2012, a humiliated Ross Taylor stepped down as Test captain, having already been told that he would no longer be ODI and T20 captain. In McCullum's first Test as full-time captain the following month, New Zealand were bundled out for 45 against South Africa, failing to bat even 20 overs. Nor was it an isolated embarrassment: New Zealand had slipped to ninth in the ODI rankings, below Bangladesh. Yet within three years the team had not only made the World Cup final, it had, with the 1-1 in England this summer, strung up an unbeaten run of seven Test series, the best in New Zealand history. All of which puts McCullum's achievement into perspective.

Yet this is a story that goes far deeper than McCullum's side. Really it is less about them than New Zealand itself.

New Zealand is a country of 4.5 million, where cricket competes not so much against a national sport but, in rugby union, a national religion. A look at NZC, ECB and ICC figures shows that New Zealand has one-eighth the number of cricketers of England, and not even twice as many as Scotland. And yet they hold, along with their Tasman rivals, the record for World Cup semi-final appearances: seven in 11 tournaments (including three in the last three). Per head of the population New Zealand has consistently been the best performing team in world cricket - and by some distance.

To an Englishman visiting for the first time, New Zealand does not seem half a world away. Sure, the landscape is incomparably more beautiful, and the fauna more exotic: no dolphins, kiwis or little blue penguins in England, alas. But the similarities are everywhere. The sound of Taylor Swift is as ubiquitous. The architecture has strong hallmarks of Britain - especially McCullum's home city of Dunedin, which is modelled on Edinburgh. Street names advertise New Zealand's British heritage at every turn. The country is run by those who not only have Anglo-Saxon heritage but are often shaped in Britain: getting educated at an elite British university is considered a rite of passage for top Kiwi politicians. Unsurprisingly, the Parliament House looks uncannily like the British House of Commons. The main difference in the food is that New Zealanders pronounce chips as "chups".

Sport has always been an intrinsic part of New Zealand society. When Charles Darwin briefly stayed in the Bay of Islands in 1835, he watched a game of cricket

But in one respect New Zealand is very, very different. Class remains a depressingly intrinsic part of British society, and cricket is not immune: the national team is increasingly dependent upon the 7% of the population who attend private schools. "Class is a word that we use when we're observing societies from afar - it's not one that really comes into consciousness here," observes Lindsay Crocker, New Zealand Cricket's head of cricket.

"There's no one more working class than Brendon McCullum in Dunedin," says John Bracewell, New Zealand coach between 2003 and 2008. "But no one gives a toss where he's from. It's a source of pride throughout the country that there's a working-class kid made good. It's the same with Richie McCaw [the New Zealand rugby union star] - the farm kid who's made good."

With most elite sportsmen, the more we see them the less we know. During the World Cup, McCullum adorned almost every ATM and starred in a ubiquitous TV advert where he implored viewers, "Dream big, New Zealand." Yet there remains a fundamental ordinariness to Brendon, as Kiwis call him - the contrast with Brits referring to Wayne Rooney by his surname is instructive. One cab driver in Dunedin was good friends with McCullum's father, Stuart. Another, in Christchurch, sent his children to the same primary school that McCullum's kids went to, and had attended barbecues with the family.

When Brendon McCullum chases, the world follows

When Brendon McCullum chases, the world follows © Getty Images

"It's very different to sportsmen in the UK - you're just not going to see international sportspeople in the flesh in the same way you do here," says Jonathan Coleman, the New Zealand sports minister, who lived in England for nine years. "We see all our sports stars - they travel on the same flights, they go to the same pubs, they eat in the same restaurants, and they live in the same communities." To Mike, a cab driver in Nelson, "Cricketers aren't treated like rock stars - they're just normal people." Almost every town has famous sporting sons, and the effect is to make sportspeople easy to identify with, to engender a belief that anyone with the aptitude and tenacity can rise to the top.

New Zealand's squads are similarly devoid of hierarchy. "If there's bags to be shifted or some menial task to be done within the team, the expectation is, and with no pushback at all from the players, that they'll all muck in and help," Crocker says. If these are easy to write off as glib words, they are vindicated by New Zealand's fielding, a traditional strength that has ascended new heights under McCullum.

"He's the first one to dive into a board," Bracewell says. The effect can be seen not only in the startling athleticism of the quick bowlers Trent Boult and Tim Southee but also in the improvement of older members of the side, encapsulated by Daniel Vettori's remarkable one-handed catch against West Indies in the World Cup quarter-final.

During the 1980s, the side often had only two or three professional cricketers: John Wright likened a county contract to "winning the lottery"

It is true that Richard Hadlee once said, "The only things that really keep me going are statistics." But in this Hadlee was unusual. Compared to England, according to Bracewell, Kiwi cricket "has a more selfless appeal because we're not millstoned by career statistics. We don't as a people pore over Wisden and compare ourselves individually as to how we're going to sit in history."

It makes New Zealand sides less risk-averse and more open to experimentation. McCullum's pioneering attacking tactics in the World Cup - in the group game against Australia in Auckland his three best bowlers bowled the first 27 overs between them - fall within a tradition.

"Stephen Fleming was regarded as the leading strategist in the game, and would set unusual fields as we unpicked sides that on paper were better than us," says Crocker. "When John Bracewell was coach we got up to No. 2 in the world in one-day cricket because our fielding systems were market-leading."

The response to the 2015 World Cup was lukewarm in Australia, compared to the frenzy across the Tasman

The response to the 2015 World Cup was lukewarm in Australia, compared to the frenzy across the Tasman © Getty Images

Unshackled by statistics or convention, the New Zealand cricketer is an innovative being. In the 1992 World Cup, the offspinner Dipak Patel opened the bowling and Mark Greatbatch, the first modern pinch-hitter, opened the batting. When New Zealand upset South Africa in the World Cup quarter-final in 2011, spinners opened the bowling from both ends. Even ostensibly limited sides have excelled. The victory over South Africa in 2011 was a classic example. At 108 for 2 in pursuit of 222, South Africa were cruising until a superb catch in the deep from Jacob Oram; Martin Guptill and McCullum then combined magnificently to run out AB de Villiers.

"There's a couple of things you can guarantee about New Zealand: they can fight and they can field," says John Wright, who was coach then. "We've always been fairly resilient. We've managed to get the best out of our resources for a long period of time. We've played attritional, tough cricket." Contempt for histrionics helps. "You can see evidence of some teams who arrive in World Cups who don't seem to pull together too well as teams. New Zealanders do - you always feel like you're playing for the people back home."

Of course, Kiwis are not immune to infighting. Recent years have included not just the captaincy dispute between McCullum and Taylor but also a power tussle between Wright and John Buchanan, triggering Wright's departure as coach three years ago. And then there were the spot-fixing revelations: the admission of guilt from Lou Vincent, and the ongoing case against "Player X" (allegedly Chris Cairns, a childhood hero to many of the current side).

There remains a fundamental ordinariness to Brendon, as Kiwis call him - the contrast with Brits referring to Wayne Rooney by his surname is instructive

But the relative unity in Kiwi society also acts as a safety net for disputes. "One thing that actually makes New Zealand teams a lot easier to pull together is that we're all drawn from a fairly similar background, it's a fairly egalitarian sort of set-up," Crocker says. "They get put together and very quickly form a bond."

It is the morning of February 28. In a few hours a febrile Eden Park crowd will explode when Kane Williamson nonchalantly lofts Pat Cummins over long-on for six to secure New Zealand's one-wicket win over Australia. For now, all that can wait. Auckland is a city captivated by #cricketfever (as local journalists are instructed to tweet by editors). Casual games of cricket are played in Basque Park and at the foot of Mount Eden while players nurse beers.

It was not only New Zealand's biggest city that took to the World Cup. While much of the tournament lived a sort of half-life in Australia, New Zealand was gripped by the Cup. Hosting the opening game in Christchurch was a significant staging post in the city's recovery from the horrors of the earthquake four years ago.

Richer cousins: cricket has always struggled to match rugby's popularity in the country, though the 2015 World Cup helped narrow the gap

Richer cousins: cricket has always struggled to match rugby's popularity in the country, though the 2015 World Cup helped narrow the gap © Getty Images

"Proudly supporting Scottish Cricket Since 2015" declared a Scottish pub in Dunedin, where the road to University Oval was renamed Brendon McCullum Drive. In Nelson, schools were offered free tickets and assigned to support Zimbabwe or UAE to create a stirring atmosphere for a seemingly unappetising clash. Feeding off a buoyant team, the effect was to create an image of Kiwi cricket as a thriving beast.

It was not always thus. The World Cup represented the culmination of a 20-year transformation of the sport in New Zealand.

The late 1990s was a grim period. New Zealand were bracketed with Zimbabwe as the weakest Test-playing nation. From the make-up of the board to the absence of full-time contracts for domestic players, the New Zealand board was an amateur body in a professional age. Participation numbers fell almost 10% in the second half of the 1990s. A board resembling an old boys' club was not fit for purpose.

In 1995, says Crocker, a governance review recommended that the existing board structure, whereby each of the six provincial chairs held a seat, be ripped up and replaced by one in which appointments were determined by merit. The snag was that board members needed to vote themselves out of jobs to implement the recommendations - yet led by the chair, Peter McDermott, they did just that. In 2012, another review advocated changing the make-up of the board to ensure more cricket-specific knowledge among directors; the chair, Chris Moller, pushed through the reforms, and did not seek re-selection.

"People are drawn to rugby - they are the rock stars of New Zealand. The IPL could help to redress this balance" Lindsay Crocker

As the New Zealand board became increasingly savvy, it led moves to create the Future Tours Programme in the late 1990s, guaranteeing the team regular fixtures against the top Test sides - and the lucrative broadcasting and sponsorship deals that accompanied these.

The lack of a fully professional set-up had historically prevented New Zealand from developing a depth of talent. Even during the 1980s, the side often had only two or three professional cricketers: a county contract, which Wright likened to "winning the lottery", was the only route to professionalism.

"It was so difficult, particularly for the players who got picked on a tour then missed out on the next one and then went on the one after that," Wright recalls. "I played with cricketers who made hardly any money from the game." On one tour to England, Wright's telephone bill dwarfed his entire tour fee.

Into the new century, cricket in New Zealand remained largely semi-professional. The leading 15 or so players received modest retainers, topped up by match fees and playing in England during the southern winter; beneath that, no system existed to award contracts to domestic players. That changed in 2002, when the New Zealand Cricket Players Association (NZCPA) negotiated a collective agreement to award 54 domestic players across the six provinces retainer contracts. The number, says NZCPA chief executive Heath Mills, has since risen to 90 - in addition to 20 players contracted directly to NZC.

"This is the first generation who have genuinely been brought up as professional cricketers," reflects Bracewell. He calls the NZCPA a "pillar" of the national team's rise.

Little Britain, minus the class wars: McCullum's hometown of Dunedin has close ties to Scotland

Little Britain, minus the class wars: McCullum's hometown of Dunedin has close ties to Scotland © Getty Images

But nothing has been as important as an increase in playing numbers. In an era when talented young sportsmen have ever more alternatives, the 50% uplift in cricket participation across genders in the last 15 years has been remarkable. So perhaps it is time to add the name of Alec Astle (father of one-cap Test player Todd, but no relation to Nathan) to those who have underpinned New Zealand's cricketing rise.

Despite a brief upturn after the 1992 World Cup, playing numbers steadily dropped over the 1990s, falling to 75,234 in 2000. After the governance changes in 1995, there was a growing awareness about the declining numbers. Astle was appointed as the first national development manager in 1998. The New Zealand administration "shifted its attention for the first time from solely high-performance cricket to also include community or grass-roots cricket", he says.

In 11 years in the role, Astle imbued junior cricket with fresh urgency. Milo sponsored two initiatives for children between five and 13, which reached over 8000 a year. Primary, secondary and club competitions were expanded; over 850 schools now enter teams into competitions every year. Cricket Development Officers were created in 2000, and there are over 60 full-time and 100 part-time officers today. An annual national cricket-awareness campaign canvases primary schools, trying to recruit children to clubs.

"There's no one more working class than Brendon McCullum in Dunedin. But no one gives a toss where he's from. It's a source of pride that there's a working-class kid made good" John Bracewell

Clubs were encouraged to play shorter forms - or even matches with fewer players. Knotty problems to do with logistics were solved by artificial pitches that could accommodate multiple games a week. None of this is glamorous, but the growth in total player numbers, to 113,570 in 2014, has been a driving force in New Zealand's success.

Whether those numbers reach new heights will depend greatly on whether cricket can be made more appealing to those of Maori and Pacific Island descent, who account for a total of 22% of the population. "Our challenge is to grow the game into non-traditional areas so that players such as Ross Taylor [whose mother is Samoan] become less rare," says Crocker.

"Cricket has been passive in dealing with these issues," believes Pat Malcon, director of cricket at Northern Districts, the area with by far the most Pacific Islander and Maori cricketers. The contrast with rugby union is an uncomfortable one. "Rugby clubs have a strong Maori presence, cricket clubs are less culturally inviting." He views New Zealand's fielding of a Maori team in the Pacifica Cup (a tournament for Pacific island teams) in 2001 as "embarrassing" because players were not prepared for the ceremonial aspects of such a tournament, and did not perform songs and speeches in their native tongue at the opening ceremony. There was "a lack of awareness from New Zealand Cricket that they needed to cover these things as well as the cricket. Otherwise we will not get support from Maoris in our attempts to grow the game amongst their young people."

Ross Taylor, of Samoan origin, could be a flagbearer for the cause of more players of Maori and Pacific heritage taking up the game

Ross Taylor, of Samoan origin, could be a flagbearer for the cause of more players of Maori and Pacific heritage taking up the game © Getty Images

All six district cricket associations have now established partnerships with Pacific islands to help develop cricket in those countries, and the hope is that Taylor can act as an inspiration. Progress among the Maori community is a little further advanced. At least eight cricketers with Maori heritage - Adam Parore, Daryl Tuffey, Shane Bond, Jesse Ryder, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Peter McGlashan and Tama Canning - have turned out for the Black Caps since 2000; Suzie Bates, one of the best female cricketers in the world, is also Maori. And the more high-profile Maori cricketers there are, the more cricket should be seen as a viable career for young Maoris.

Malcon hopes that the "groundswell of interest" created by the World Cup leads to more initiatives. The World Cup might also have an impact on immigrants from South Asia - including Indian New Zealanders, the fastest growing segment of the population. Jeetan Patel and Ish Sodhi have recently appeared for the national team. How successful NZC is in making the sport more representative of the modern country could go a long way to determining the team's future success.

Before the World Cup final, Martin Crowe wrote: "If New Zealand win, for the very first time they will step out of the All Blacks' shadows. That is arguably the greatest feat of all."

"You can see evidence of some teams who arrive in World Cups who don't seem to pull together too well as teams. New Zealanders do" John Wright

Rugby's popularity means that, even as New Zealand's summer sport, cricket faces a battle for oxygen. Talented dual sportsmen have continually plumped for rugby. In the 1990s, Jeff Wilson abandoned a promising start to his Black Caps career to become an all-time great All Black. Israel Dagg impressed Brett Lee as a teenage quick bowler until rugby came calling.

"That's a constant battle for us," Crocker admits. "People are drawn to rugby - they are the rock stars of New Zealand." The IPL could help to redress this balance. New Zealand have taken a relaxed attitude to players turning out in the league, aware that it "gives them the chance to earn income that we simply can't provide", and ultimately makes pursuing a cricket career more attractive.

The cricket World Cup captivated the nation, yet no one pretended that it was a bigger deal than when New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup four years earlier. But the Black Caps have also benefited from the All Blacks' unrelenting success. "There's a natural cross-pollination because it's a small population and people bump into each other socially and at events," says Bracewell. Sport New Zealand shares best practice between sports.

Rugby also helps to shape the character of Kiwi cricket. "It reinforces the ethos of team", according to Bracewell. Seeing McCullum throw himself around with such vigour in the World Cup was to see an athlete who played fly half for the South Island Secondary Schools side ahead of Dan Carter.

Catch 'em young: Corey Anderson is a product of the player-development system created by Alec Astle

Catch 'em young: Corey Anderson is a product of the player-development system created by Alec Astle © Getty Images

Perhaps McCullum's ebullience in the field also hinted at something deeper about New Zealand. It is not only rugby and cricket that the country excels in: it ranks among the top ten nations in the Olympics per head of population.

"We're an outdoor nation, we're very competitive," Coleman says, attributing success to the country's origins. "New Zealand was founded on a very much pioneering, adventurous spirit and lifestyle, both Maori and European New Zealanders. If you go back to the early days of European settlement, it was a very physical culture here - people were often measured on their physical prowess."

Sport has always been an intrinsic part of Kiwi society. Sporting grounds - including those for cricket - were often among the earliest spaces set aside in colonial towns and villages. When Charles Darwin briefly stayed in the Bay of Islands in 1835, he watched a game of cricket.

One hundred and eighty years on, the question is whether the success of McCullum's team is built to last. Especially in the age of the self-appointed Big Three.

"We know that we've got to compete on a level playing field with the Indias, Englands, Australias, those well-resourced countries, but with a New Zealand budget," Crocker explains. "We've spent a lot of time getting it right and concentrating our resources on a few, rather than mass production. We'll spend a lot of time zeroing in on what makes these guys tick, understanding which ones are likely to be the best."

"Every sport in New Zealand has to understand that they've got to be very good at identifying the talent that wants to be in the sport and then making sure that talent is resourced," says Wright. "That may be one of the secrets for why as a country we punch above our weight in many different sports."

Rugby also helps to shape the character of Kiwi cricket. "It reinforces the ethos of team", according to Bracewell

And New Zealand cricket has never packed a bigger punch than today. Few would dispute Bracewell's claim that today's team has the "greatest depth of any New Zealand side that has ever been selected. I can think of five or six players who would in any other era have been in the New Zealand side for a World Cup."

The performances of new players are a microcosm of any country's cricketing strength. "Often in the past, we would have seven or eight good guys in the team, and the newcomers would have their L-plates on, and it would take them a year or two to get up to speed," Crocker says. Kane Williamson, Adam Milne, Matt Henry and Corey Anderson - all products of the player-development system created by Astle - have had no such problems.

They have also benefited from the enlarged New Zealand A team programme in recent years. That programme was funded by the ICC's Targeted Assistance Performance Programme (TAPP), meant to improve the lower-ranked Test nations and the leading Associates.

"TAPP funding has been probably the crucial difference for us," says Crocker, "in that it's allowed us to give that next group of players opportunities on a range of surfaces, in a range of conditions around the world."

So it is a concern that TAPP is one casualty of the Big Three's strategy to hoard a greater share of ICC revenue. TAPP bypassed boards by allocating ICC money directly to fund matches for A tours; even if NZC tries to maintain a heavy A team programme, other boards might now have different priorities. While New Zealand is slightly better off than under the previous rights cycle, with pressure to professionalise the women's game, spending on male cricket could fall in real terms. "Certainly we don't want to let go of our A team programme, but that means we won't be able to apply our funds in other areas," Crocker explains.

Cricket joining the Olympics could provide another financial boon - High Performance Sport New Zealand targets Olympic sports, so cricket receives less than 1% of its annual funding - but the staunch opposition of the ECB and BCCI makes that highly unlikely.

"We hear that we're regarded as people who punch above our weight - we hear that a lot," Crocker says. "Whilst it's pleasant to hear those sorts of comments, it's equally not sufficient for us. We know we can do better than we've done historically."

Compared to 1992, New Zealand is far better placed to use a successful home World Cup to entice new players, fans and sponsorship. McCullum called the World Cup run "the greatest days of our lives". But Kiwis should not forget his advice during the tournament. "Dream big, New Zealand": the best could be yet to come.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts