Australia v New Zealand, World Cup 2015, final, Melbourne March 28, 2015

Why I'm hoping for a fairy-tale finish

A New Zealand win will be good for the country, the game, and for one man

There can be few examples of a more impressive resources-to-success ratio in sport © International Cricket Council

Practised neutrality is part of the journalist's brief, but it is impossible to follow sport without having your heartstrings pulled. The World Cup comes once in four years; India are out, as are all the subcontinental teams, which eliminates the case for nationalistic or geographical partisanship, so let me declare my hand. Sydney, where I have spent most of my time during the World Cup, has been the perfect host, but allow me to give you three reasons why I would be happy if New Zealand lift the trophy tomorrow.

Who doesn't love a fairy tale?
I am a sucker for them. We watch sport for many reasons: the contest, the skills, the spectacle, the drama, the thrills, the emotions and the narrative. To rejoice in the triumph of the underdog is among the higher pleasures. It fulfils two of our cravings.

It underlines the unpredictability of sport (in fact, it is a celebration of it), and is a reaffirmation that sport cannot be scripted. Two, it somehow makes us feel virtuous. In fiction the triumph of the underdog is often inevitable, but this is real, flesh and blood, and it takes place before our eyes, in real time. Their victory in this game feels like ours.

New Zealand has fewer people than the Mumbai suburb I live in. And rugby runs in the country's veins. Till the IPL came along, New Zealand's cricketers were among the most poorly paid among those from the Test nations. John Wright, a former captain and New Zealand's most successful opening batsman, went to work in a hardware store after he retired; Ewen Chatfield, a miserly bowler in limited-overs cricket, and honest toiler in Tests, drives a taxi. Most cricketers in this small and charming nation are people like you and me, which makes them more accessible and likeable.

And yet they have made it to seven World Cup semi-finals. There can be few examples of a more impressive resources-to-success ratio in sport. But even by their own record, in reaching the final, New Zealand have already taken a giant stride.

It can be argued they were hardly outsiders this time. With all their matches at home, not reaching the semi-final would have been considered a failure. But against the might of Australia at the MCG tomorrow, in conditions far removed from Eden Park, they will start as underdogs. Man for man Australia are better resourced: they have more power, more depth, and they are masters of their conditions. Cricket logic says they should win. But it will be a far better story if New Zealand do.

Good things happen when unfancied and small teams win. The 1983 win transformed Indian cricket, the 1996 win made Sri Lankan cricket fly higher. Who knows what transformation it can bring in New Zealand.

Three slips have been a common feature for New Zealand, and there have been times when Brendon McCullum has had five men catching © ICC

A new template for one-day cricket
In the 36th over of the first semi-final, with the momentum of the innings beginning to swing perceptibly towards South Africa, Kane Williamson dropped a catch. Not any catch. It was the catch. It came off the bat of AB de Villiers. He had scored 38 off 28 balls, the sort of launchpad that usually gets him 100 off the next 40. A hush fell over the ground, Williamson's team-mates hurried across to offer pats and possibly words of encouragement: this is the sort of moment that costs a side a match - and in this case a place in the final.

By no means was it an easy catch. The ball from Corey Anderson was short and wide, and it rifled away from de Villiers' bat; Williamson had to lunge to his left to reach the ball, which burst through his hands. It would have been sensational had he caught it, and it spoke of the standard set by his team that he was expected to take it.

The real story there was that Williamson was in a position to take it in the first place. Anderson, whose role for New Zealand had been to limit the damage, was bowling to the most devastating batsman in contemporary cricket in the final 15 overs of the match; and Williamson was at short cover, in a catching, not run-saving, position in front of the wicket. Had he been fielding at regular cover on the edge of the 30-yard circle, the ball would have been too far from him.

That's what Brendon McCullum and his team have brought to this World Cup and to one-day cricket. The bowlers have become hunters again, and batsmen have been made to feel it throughout. Perhaps it has come about from the futility of trying to protect the boundaries - at Eden Park the ropes are ridiculously close to the 30-yard circle.

And this unremitting charge for wickets minimised the dull periods in the game. Three slips have been a common feature, and there have been times when McCullum has had five men catching. His response to Faf du Plessis getting to his fifty with a six was to add a slip. It was perhaps just to make a statement, but what a statement.

Trends catch on in sports when they are accompanied by wins. If New Zealand can win playing the brand of cricket that has brought them to the final, the game would be better off for what it may engender. Let the force be with them.

Martin Crowe says that in reaching the final New Zealand have fulfilled his dreams © Getty Images

For Marty Crowe
This a deeply personal reason, but we are allowed to make sport deeply personal. My relationship with Martin Crowe didn't get off to the best of starts. During my time with wisden.com there was a misunderstanding over a ghosted piece that made things tricky for him back home, and it led to him giving up writing altogether. That was in 2001.

But we got in touch over email later, a connection was made, and a relationship grew. It has been among the most profound relationships in my life, though we didn't meet in person until last year's World T20. Life's experiences had expanded his horizons, and when he resumed writing he brought not merely the depth of his experiences as one of the finest batsmen and tacticians in cricket but a spiritual quality gained from getting acquainted with his own self. Over the past couple of years he has not merely enriched cricket literature and the pages of ESPNcricinfo, but also my own life. To be able to get to know your heroes is a privilege; to have them in your life as friends is a rare blessing. His courage and grace in the face of a life-threatening condition have been an inspiration.

I know how the 1992 semi-final loss gutted him, and for how long he had carried the hurt. I wasn't there with him in the studio when that cathartic moment - New Zealand qualifying for the final - came earlier this week. Michael Holding, who was there, told me later he wanted New Zealand to win only for Marty. A burden was lifted when Grant Elliott took them over the line.

Crowe says that in reaching the final New Zealand have fulfilled his dreams. Irrespective of what happens in the final, his soul has already been lifted. I will be watching the final with him at the MCG. It will be emotional. I want it to be among the best days of his life.

"Four million dare to believe, while 11 dare to achieve", he has written in his most recent piece. I want those 11 men to be playing for one man.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal

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