McCullum's men ready for one final attack
There is something about this New Zealand cricket team. Something that has swept the country along for the ride over the past six weeks. Something that has turned a rugby nation temporarily into a cricket country, something that has brought the Black Caps up to the same level as the All Blacks, and lifted Brendon McCullum to the status of Richie McCaw. New Zealand's greatness has been contagious.
The All Whites were the only undefeated side at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a quirk of their three draws that were not enough to progress past the group stage. It means far more for the Black Caps to have been the only undefeated team at this year's cricket World Cup, having flown through the group stage, cruised through a quarter-final and secured a thrilling semi-final win over South Africa.
It all culminates in what could become the biggest day in New Zealand's cricket history. Last time the World Cup was held in this part of the world, neither of the hosts reached the final. New Zealand enthralled their home fans throughout the round-robin stage by winning seven of their eight games, but stumbled in the semi-final against Pakistan. Twenty-three years later comes a chance for atonement.
"It's a pretty amazing ride," captain Brendon McCullum said. "The guys have been great about it as well. We know when the World Cup is over we'll sort of return a little bit to where things were. But at the moment we'll just try to embrace the fan following and what we've been able to achieve for New Zealand. I think it's captivated the country back home. We've felt the support all the way through.
"Even while we're here in Melbourne we are feeling the support of the people back home. For us to now at this point in time be talked about and followed in the same breath as some of the great All Black teams, it's immensely satisfying, but we know we've got to continue to build on that too. So, yeah, we're thankful for what we've been able to achieve and the support that we've had, but it would be nice to win and go for another game."
In that 1992 tournament, Pakistan's triumphant captain Imran Khan famously spoke of his team playing like cornered tigers; McCullum throughout this tournament has implored his men to embrace what they will look back on as the time of their lives. They have enjoyed the experience, but kept things as normal as possible along the way.
Two nights before the World Cup final, McCullum was indulging in one of his passions, enjoying an evening of horse racing at Melbourne's Moonee Valley racecourse. At the MCG on Saturday, McCullum and his brother Nathan finished the squad's final training session with a personal net battle that looked more like backyard family cricket, a light-hearted way to cap off the preparation.
On the field, the New Zealanders have been given permission to play their natural way, to trust their instincts and not fear the consequences if they fall in doing so. Coach Mike Hesson has contributed to creating this atmosphere and McCullum has led from the front, batting with complete freedom, setting four-slip fields, attack, attack, attack. It will be no different against Australia on Sunday.
"We need to play like that, that's how we're going to beat teams on regular occasions," McCullum said. "We're not afraid of losing. For us we think about what we can achieve. That's not always going to work and there are going to be times when we come out on the wrong side of it. But that gives us our greatest chance of success against big opposition teams on a regular basis."
It was that approach that allowed New Zealand to overcome a strong South Africa in the semi-final in Auckland; McCullum's free-wheeling innings gave them a powerful start and Grant Elliott gave everything to get the side over the line in the final stages. It is a brand of cricket that McCullum believes has endeared the side to the nation.
And it has been a remarkable journey. In 2012, Hesson was appointed coach and there was much public displeasure about the way he removed Ross Taylor as captain. McCullum's first Test in charge in January 2013 brought an embarrassing collapse, all out for 45 against South Africa in Cape Town. It is a moment that he believes has led directly to this rise.
"It gave us the ability to strip it right back," McCullum said. "At that point in time it was a tough space to be in. I look back on it and I wouldn't have changed it. It's allowed us to get where we're at in the game at the moment. It's allowed us to refocus on what's important to us, and it's allowed us to develop not just as cricketers but people as well.
"That's what our country, I guess, what they enjoy most about this current team is we have humble guys who are trying their absolute best to represent a country and play an attacking brand of cricket ... We're also all on the same bus heading in the same direction, and that allows us to be rather instinctive on the field and pretty brave as well, because you know you're going to get total buy-in from the group.
"We've got a great group of guys from 1 through to 25 in the squad, and they're guys who it's been a pleasure to be able to share this experience with. It won't stop at the end of the World Cup. We know we've still got a lot of hard work to achieve what we want in this game and stand where we want to stand in international cricket, but we've made a good start."
The New Zealand public would certainly agree.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale