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
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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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on March 29, 2015, 5:53 GMT

    @KRAKS ZAKS I agree with you mate. You don't win a world cup based on sentiments. If you want to win the cup, play better than the other team and get it. Everything else is inconsequential and doesn't make any sense.

  • Ravi on March 29, 2015, 2:04 GMT

    I cannot agree more with Sambit! I am sure most people's hearts are with the black caps just like mine. So many reasons to like them: Their revolutionary style/approach to one-day games (the great Martin Crowe tried it in 1992 and nearly puled it off), their exceptional leader who leads from the front (the day I saw him diving to stop a ball very much like a cat trying to catch a mouse that is running away...I knew here was a captain who leads by example), their very talented combination of bowlers and batsmen (who seem to have an errie understanding that if one fails another wil take it up!) and fact that it is a small country with a small cricketing base taking on a bigger (and somewhat arrogant brother)...then there is Martin Crowe...he made batting look so easy and fluent. NZ should win it for all these reasons.... I know Australia is a great team...but this is a well balanced NZ team with their best pool of talent ever....and they are destined to create history!

  • niaz on March 29, 2015, 1:06 GMT

    There was this WI team..then came AUS team..no one is better than them. I do feel NZ, SA can beat AUS in ODI. When it comes to test cricket, they are well settled. A bowling line up of Harris, Hazlewood, Starc/Johnson followed by a waiting list of Pattinson, Collins and allrounders like Faulkner/Watson to give quicks the rest. All the best for NZ. I wanted SA to win this world cup though...

  • Joshua on March 29, 2015, 0:21 GMT

    Doing it for Martin Crowe's a nice story, if the Kiwis get up. But the Australians have their own story. He hasn't been mentioned much recently, but I have a feeling this Australian team wants to end this, their longest and toughest season, with a win in the World Cup for Phil Hughes. If the Australians win, I expect Hughes to feature in the speeches tonight.

  • Peter on March 28, 2015, 22:16 GMT

    @AYDEN SMITH . Given their outstanding athletic ability in Aussie Rules who knows how well they could have done in Rugby if they concentrated on that with the same passion as Aussie Rules. They have however produced more Olympic Gold Medalists, Swimming World Champions, Grand Slam winners in golf & tennis, MotoGP World Champions, have had more players in the NBA & NFL, more players in US professional baseball leagues than NZ. That said, the Kiwis have always been my second team & even now, I wouldn't be that unhappy if they beat us today, the bond between our countries run a lot deeper than others & their form in cricket WC's, if nothing else has been outstanding to date. I know your guys seem to try that little bit extra against us than we seem to against your guys, but always been a good contest. Cheers.

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2015, 20:41 GMT

    @Drew Foster - you're incorrect there - the national sport in Aussie is cricket. Like it is in India.

  • Nathan on March 28, 2015, 20:15 GMT

    Australia are the All Blacks of cricket, undoubtedly the greatest cricketing nation of all time. So this is our Everest, a shot at conquering the giants of world cricket in their own fortress. And for the first time ever we believe we are good enough to do so. But whatever happens we couldn't be prouder of our boys, for restoring the pride in the Black Caps and making this great game matter to New Zealanders once again.

    "It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves" Sir Edmund Hillary.

    Kia Kaha Black Caps, we believe

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2015, 19:55 GMT

    Would support NZ team. Its their dream after so many Semi final attempts. The technique and temperament would matter but the spirit would win it ultimately for the team.

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2015, 17:55 GMT

    Definitely for Martin Crowe common black caps just do it.

  • Doug on March 28, 2015, 15:16 GMT

    It's one story, to win for Martin Crowe, and many will share the sentiment. For Australia, there are fairy tale stories too, like having to overcome the Phil Hughes tragedy and go on to win the WC for Phil. A less interesting story is that Australia have worked very hard to build the success they currently enjoy since the failure at the last Champions Trophy, and deserve reward for that as much as any other fairy tale. All the best to both teams.

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