Is this New Zealand's best World Cup chance?
The 11th World Cup is just around the corner, yet New Zealand have a further eight games (from January 15) to play before they march out on February 14 to play the opening match against Sri Lanka. Normally that's more than a whole summer's worth. To win the World Cup, New Zealand will need to play 17 one-day matches from here, which will be exhausting. This is my only concern as I assess their chances.
I have always believed a team first needs three vital components to succeed; motivation, organisation and selection.
Nothing is more motivating than playing a World Cup on home soil. Ask the All Blacks (and I can vouch for the '92 cricket side, who rose unexpectedly to the occasion).
Over the last 18 months, New Zealand Cricket has become an efficient, well-led organisation. They have learnt from previous mistakes. They were humbled to their knees at one point, then changed their constitution and board structure, and set sail for unprecedented glory. So far, so good.
In Mike Hesson, the head coach, they have Mr Organiser, a man who like the recent All Blacks coaches, is leaving no stone unturned. That his status has risen so highly is a testament to his desire to learn and grow on his young feet.
Which leads to the next crucial piece in the puzzle: selection. For the entire span of New Zealand's involvement as a Test-playing nation, going back to the 1920s, selection has been an Achilles heel. As a former executive producer for Sky Television, I commissioned a documentary series on our cricket history and the standout weakness, over and over, was poor selection. Until recently. Joining Hesson in a two-man panel, Bruce Edgar, the former gritty left-hand opening bat, is arguably the finest selector New Zealand has ever had: he played to a high level, he's a great communicator and has no ego.
Since coming back from a long stint in Sydney, Edgar has provided the nous, intelligence and common sense to ensure the consistency needed for this team to grow and ultimately perform. His appointment could well go down as the most valuable decision made in my time.
This all leads to the front line, the team itself. With the first three components firmly in place, New Zealand are primed to strike. Led by the highly skilled and now vastly experienced Brendon McCullum, they have the best chance in history to lift the World Cup on March 29. McCullum is now widely regarded, along with Michael Clarke, as the most astute tactician in the game. He possesses a mind that oozes flair and uninhibited strategy. He sees the openings, and he never delays in capitalising. Be assured, captaincy will be a major factor in the final outcome of the World Cup.
The 15 players selected all have specific roles, all have form, and all are ready now. Their first big challenge is getting through the next eight games unscathed. That won't be easy but there are two fit young men in Matt Henry and Jimmy Neesham waiting for a slip up.
Depth is always crucial to any campaign, and for the first time I can remember, New Zealand possess some. Unlike the ridiculous non-selection of Chris Pringle in '92, who would have been crucial in the pressure cauldron of a semi-final, the selectors this time have their heads screwed on. Back then, we succeeded, to a point, despite their ignorance.
McCullum and Martin Guptill will open the batting. They have done so before in the previous World Cup and they are a perfect foil for each other. Guptill will look to bat long into the innings, with the focus on defending the wicket ball with fluent footwork and a broad, straight bat, and a new ability to play dynamically off the back foot. McCullum will provide the X-factor that we all know and admire.
Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor need little introduction: they are world-class and they are highly motivated. Timing is everything - one is going through his first major peak, the latter is in the prime phase of his career.
The No. 5 slot, with McCullum going up, will appear to be a face-off between Grant Elliott, a fine journeyman, and Tom Latham, a fine rookie. Yet it's not, as they will both be used strategically.
Elliott is an inspired choice. He is extremely fit, clearly defying his age, he can bowl a potpourri of mediums and field the house down. Latham too has many attributes; he can keep wicket, he is a left-hander, and he can move it around the clock during the middle overs. Expect to see both rotated, a horses for courses approach.
Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi complete the batting expertise at six and seven, or vice versa, depending on who is at five. Both have enough experience now, both are brutal match-winners on their day. Both, however, need to remove any lingering doubts they have felt in past elimination games.
In this lies the potential crux to New Zealand's chances. Can they feel the pressure moments and move past them? History shows that pressure speeds up the thought process, leading to a rash thought and a crucial mistake. This batting line-up must take its time when the moment comes, even stop the game momentarily to talk it through, select the right thought or affirmation, thus avoiding the deathly collapse.
It applies to the bowling too. Tim Southee has been building a reputation for a while now and will lead the attack with movement and accuracy. Trent Boult and Kyle Mills the same, yet with different release points. Mitchell McClenaghan and Adam Milne provide raw pace and aggression - speed being a necessary inclusion in each match. Nathan McCullum and Daniel Vettori will rotate the spin berth, while also playing a vital role at eight in the batting order. It's a superbly balanced unit, brilliantly coached by the departing Shane Bond. They will all need to play a critical part. This is where the team selectors and advisers will earn their crust.
Most impressive of all will be their fielding, ahead of all other contenders. If they can continue to take a quarter of the wickets with mind-blowing athleticism, then they will prevail.
Most will say New Zealand must qualify in the top two of the group, which includes Australia, Sri Lanka and England, to avoid presumably South Africa or India in the quarter-finals. I don't subscribe to that, though consistent winning is a no-brainer. This World Cup format means the guts of the tournament really only begins on March 18. I can't see any of the top eight missing the quarters. Unless West Indies go home for some reason.
To win the World Cup you have to beat the best at some point, so why not do it when the cream hasn't quite risen to the top in tournament play, when the pressure cooker isn't steaming outrageously? Often, semis and finals are so nervy, you don't have to be at your very best to win, you just have to believe fearlessly throughout.
A quarter-final elimination game could be the time you need to play your best. The last time New Zealand faced such a match was against Sri Lanka in a must-win during the World T20 in Chittagong last year. Having bowled Sri Lanka out for a measly score, New Zealand collapsed dramatically and lost easily. They must learn that controlled slowed-down thinking during these moments is the only way to progress. Every batsman who played that day, with the exclusion of Williamson, showed they must make this mental adjustment over the next month if they are to have any chance of unprecedented glory. Each player has to do an honest mental check, removing the past glitch, learning a better way.
To win a World Cup, the top two inches need accurate organising if you want to believe you can beat the best, anytime, any place.
Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand