New Zealand's class of 2008
Malaysia may seem an unlikely country to which to trace back the formulation of what is frequently being called New Zealand's strongest ever team. But it was there, in the cities of Kuala Lumpur and Johor in February 2008, that four of the current 15-man squad came together at the Under-19 World Cup. Kane Williamson, Corey Anderson, Tim Southee and Trent Boult helped New Zealand to the semi-finals, where they lost to India, captained by Virat Kohli.
Hamish Rutherford, the Test opener, was also part of the squad. To borrow a phrase from the wine industry, which seems appropriate for New Zealand, 2008 was a good vintage.
In the semi-final, Anderson top-scored with 70 off 67 balls and Southee plucked 4 for 29, but it was not enough to prevent a three-wicket defeat. Seven years later, all four of the quartet have played match-winning hands at the current World Cup.
"I remember the semi-final against India, it was the first time I'd played at night," Boult recalls. "The lights were probably not more than 15 metres high and when the ball went up you would lose it. It was a pretty good India that we lost to."
Dipak Patel, the former New Zealand offspinner, who tore apart traditional thinking around the one-day game when he opened the bowling in the 1992 World Cup, was the coach of the team and is now in charge of Papua New Guinea. He remembers feeling there was a group that stood out. "The four boys were always at the forefront of those that would go on and play international cricket," he told ESPNcricinfo. "Even during the tournament in Malaysia it felt like a matter of time."
In fact, that time had already come for one of them. Southee had made his New Zealand debut two weeks before the opening game of the tournament in a T20 against England, claiming Paul Collingwood as his maiden international wicket. He played the second match of the series two days later, bagging Kevin Pietersen in his 2 for 22.
"We went to Australia before the tournament and had a training camp," Boult remembers. "Tim was playing for the Black Caps and I remember watching him in a restaurant in Brisbane, and then a couple of weeks later he was playing for us, so that was a little surreal."
Then, a few weeks after the U-19 World Cup, Southee made his Test debut in Napier, striking in his second over and taking 5 for 55 in the first innings. He ended up on the losing side, but not before smoking 77 off 40 balls with nine sixes.
Over the years, Southee's batting has faded from the promise he showed as an U-19 player. At the 2006 World Cup in Sri Lanka he made 92 off 55 balls against Ireland (a game, incidentally, where Eoin Morgan made 124), but he has become a master of his swing craft.
Southee's international career was already born when he took the new ball alongside Boult in Malaysia, but Patel says that there was no sense of superiority. "Tim was probably the joker, he liked to pull pranks on team-mates, but I think the young guys in the team appreciated it. He was already a Black Cap but he was still one of the lads and he saw the fun side of the game. Of course he and Trent were close mates from Northern Districts, so it helped build that good partnership." Boult confirms Southee "retains the reputation as the joker".
It took some time, though, for the quartet to be reunited on the international stage. Boult had to wait until December 2011 for his New Zealand debut, against Australia in the Hobart Test that New Zealand won by seven runs. His first wicket was Michael Hussey.
Williamson had made his first appearance in 2010, one-dayers first (starting with two ducks), followed by a century on Test debut against India.
Anderson was the last to reach the top level, in late 2012 with a T20 debut, although he had to wait another six months for an ODI spot.
"Corey was more of a quiet achiever and Kane was so calculated in what he did," Patel says of the U-19 days. "I admired how they carried themselves. Corey was more of a batsman who bowled a bit. He was going through a growth spurt and we were very conscious of overbowling him; he's still used quite sparingly these days. His batting has certainly gone to another level. He was very destructive but there wasn't always much structure to his batting."
Of Williamson, there was little doubt, though he did not stand out in Malaysia, making 124 runs at 31. "He was a very solid individual, very mature, on and off the field," Patel remembers. "He showed that from a very early stage. His maturity as a batsman shone through at U-19 level, he was a couple of notches ahead of anyone else. It was the way he went about batting, excellent plans, and the time he had. His greatest asset is his hunger to bat, and that was the case back then, too. He just loves to bat. His work ethic was so far ahead of everyone else in that squad."
Watching New Zealand's training sessions at the World Cup, it is clear nothing has dimmed that work ethic. "He certainly still enjoys his throwdowns now," Boult says. "There were rumours going around that he'd have millions of them when he was younger."
It has only been of late, however, since Boult was elevated to the one-day squad shortly before the World Cup, that they have all become regular team-mates again with the white ball. During the U-19 tournament, Boult and Southee shared 28 wickets; Southee took 17 to be named Player of the Tournament, and Boult 11, seven of which came against Malaysia when only he and Southee were required to bowl. It did not take a crystal ball to see a rosy future, although as often happens it was not a smooth transition.
"In all my reports that was a strong point I made," Patel says. "That they could become a good partnership and that it was important that they were allowed to stay who they were and not to change too many things, especially with their bowling actions. You could see from a very early stage that they had the tools and that they could swing the ball at pace."
For the players, though, thoughts of the future were a long way away and playing a future World Cup was not a topic of conversation. "We always had personal goals, but we didn't sit down and think too far ahead. It's great it's happened," Boult says.
However, for a while Patel feared his concerns about their bowling actions being tinkered with would have cause for existence. Boult was first included in a New Zealand squad for the 2009 Chappell-Hadlee series but did not get a game and then suffered a stress fracture of his back. Southee, meanwhile, struggled to build on the promising debut against England and his Test average ballooned into the 40s until mid-2012, although his one-day numbers were more impressive. By that time Boult had only played a handful of Tests. Then, in October 2012, Shane Bond joined as bowling coach.
"What I see now is what I saw when they were with the Under-19s," Patel says. "There was a period when their bowling actions changed for the worse, but it's good to see that Shane Bond has done a very good job of bringing them back to where they were when they were 18-19 years old. I've still got video footage on my laptop as evidence. No question, these are their natural bowling actions and the results over the last 12-18 months is testimony to that."
Patel was at Eden Park for the recent match against Australia. Boult grabbed the early kudos with 5 for 27 and Williamson finished it with that six, but Southee and Anderson also played their parts. For Patel, it was a chance for some quiet satisfaction at having helped nurture a new generation.
"I certainly take great pride in watching their successes. We wanted to develop these players towards being Black Caps, and I sit back now - I'm just writing some reports in PNG as we speak, about my current players, and you read the ones you did then and think, 'Maybe I did make a difference.'"
Now among the best bowlers in the world, and preparing for a World Cup quarter-final, Boult's overriding memories of those few weeks in Malaysia are of wide-eyed excitement and of lifelong friendships being forged. "We were all so young and just loving getting the opportunity to play in a World Cup. A lot of us remain good mates from that tournament. The majority are playing first-class cricket. To say there would be four of us representing our country in a World Cup would have been a bit of a long shot but it's fantastic."
Andrew McGlashan is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo