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October 4, 2009
If ever in cricket a side has decisively shifted the emphasis from the individual battles that form each contest to the more collaborative jousts that shape the broader battle, it is New Zealand. They've had great individuals to be sure, but more times than not, their triumphs have been built on a number of smaller, lesser celebrated individual wins, especially the modern-day New Zealand. If not always an attractive or thrilling trait, it is an endlessly admirable one.
How on earth have they managed to get to the final of this, the most competitive Champions Trophy? Every game they have played after their opening loss to South Africa they have had to win. Every game since, they have won. Almost every game has wrought some serious toll on their squad, now almost unrecognisable from the one that landed here. And Daniel Vettori aside, they have no player in either the top five run-getters or wicket-takers of the tournament.
But right through their path lie scattered vital contributions here, there and everywhere; Jesse Ryder and the top and lower order against Sri Lanka, Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill, Shane Bond and Grant Elliott against England, Vettori, Ian Butler, Elliott again against Pakistan. When - and if at all - they hand out medals to the side after this is over, there will be no shortage of men standing tall.
Only the captain has been a man apart, a giant among giants. He has an embedded slacker cool about him, so if you saw him jamming with the early 90s Beck somewhere he wouldn't seem out of place. In a way more stable than it seems, he's been many things over two weeks; brooding, spiky, witty, intelligent and understated. The beard and deep voice adds gravitas, but his performances haven't needed it. He has scored runs when they have needed scoring and his bowling has been so good it's hardly been noticed.
"Basically the reason we have come so far is because we've had team performances," said Vettori, a day before he leads his side out against Australia at Centurion. "The whole time a number of guys have stepped up and allowed us to win. While we may not have had too many stars in the tournament, if you look at every game, we've had six to seven guys step up and really perform."
They will need that and then some in the final. Aura or not, no team is looking as monstrously impressive as Australia currently. Historically and famously, New Zealand have upped their game against Australia but that theory has been ground to dust recently, in fact, turned on its head: in the last five years, Australia have won 18 of 27 games against New Zealand. Vettori knows it.
"We've been poor as of late against them," he said. "We got a 2-2 result in the Chappell-Hadlee series but before that we haven't played as well as we can. Probably we've had a reputation for getting up against them but the results haven't been there. We're hoping we can call on that form from our first two games from that series but we know Australia is a pretty impressive side and they've hovered around that top ranking for a long time."
Other factors will be up against them as well, just in case nobody thought Australia was enough of an obstacle to triumph. They played the second semi-final and so have one day's rest less. Vettori admitted that the win over Pakistan was exhausting. Not having played at Centurion since their opening game could also possibly be a disadvantage. And a bit of the battle will be against the self.
New Zealand have been, for the longest time, honest semi-finalists. This is their first big tournament final since the 2000 Champions Trophy and that was the only other time they made a final in a global event. "I think you have achieved what you set out to achieve but once you reach that level you realise there is immense desire to go all the way," said Vettori. "There's no relief in the camp and after the win last night, it was all about how we are going win tomorrow as opposed to it's great we made it. It's pleasing for me as captain to hear those sentiments and make sure we put it in practice tomorrow."
They will be up against it tomorrow, but they have survived and thrived on that through this tournament. They have done it so long as a cricket nation, it is probably a default setting. But in this tournament, the real surprise would be if there was no surprise at all tomorrow at Centurion.
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa
Would he have fared better than the incumbent middle-order batsmen, Root and Ballance?