For so long the sport's spirited overachievers, 2014 has been a year in which New Zealand have earned a place at cricket's top table. In Tests, they have won five of their nine matches - three of those, overseas - and have been impressive home and away in ODIs as well.

The improvements, New Zealand coach Mike Hessson said, are thanks to a new team ethos, coupled with the development of high-quality cricketers. Among those is Brendon McCullum, whose rich year with the bat coincided with a purple patch for the side. He possesses just the qualities required to lead a team that aims to be greater than the sum of its parts, Hesson said.

"If he can back up 2015 with another year like 2014, it will be brilliant," he said. "He's a very selfless player. I think we've seen that in the way he goes about things in all three forms."

Hesson had backed McCullum for the captaincy in a controversial leadership-reshuffle in late 2012. The pair had known each other since their time together at Otago, where Hesson also coached.

"I've known Brendon for quite some time and I've always enjoyed his company, but there's no doubt that he's more of a mature individual now. He's a family man, and a mature calculating guy. The guys love playing for him. He's what New Zealand cricket fans want to see - a guy who's willing to take the opposition on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But he drags a few people along."

New Zealand's rejuvenation after several dark years had in part been because of serious introspection in 2013, and a sharp focus on the team's needs, which has evolved in the past 18 months. Hesson said that collective philosophy has been universally embraced within the unit.

"Everyone thinks of the team. You can't have a team-first mentality if only a few people are buying into it. A lot of teams talk about it, but I think it's more about what you do. When you have players sacrificing their own personal records for what the team needs, that's what it's all about.

"We've also been pretty consistent in how we've gone about things in terms of selection, in terms of the way we want to play the game, and in terms of the people we think fits that mix. We've given them time to try and grow into the game. By doing that you end up playing for the team, rather than trying to just stay in the team. When you're fighting for your place all the time the team aspect can be neglected, and we certainly don't do that in this group." 

While the team's star players - the new ball pair, and the middle-order featuring McCullum, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor - have been in exceptional form in the past few months, Hesson also reserved praise for the supporting players who have been a part of their success.

"When you have roles, you might not get a 100 every game, but you have to play the way the team requires. That gets the best out of the group. The way our openers batted the first hour against Sri Lanka after losing the toss, was them fulfilling a role. They might not have made a lot of runs individually, but it was important for the team."

Hesson said the team would reassess their combination in light of the heavy workload the fast bowlers shouldered in Christchurch. Tim Southee delivered 49 overs in the Boxing Day Test, while Trent Boult bowled 50 overs. Though they are now up 1-0 in the series, New Zealand would not cease to press for a second win, he said.

"We've been proactive in the way we play our cricket in the last 18 months. At times we've been aggressive, maybe risking a result not going our way - but that's the way we want to play. That's the way we want to move up the rankings and be acknowledged as a good cricket side. All we're thinking about is the next Test at the Basin Reserve. We're not even thinking about the World Cup."