In our series Come to Think of It, where we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom, we ask if New Zealand were always nice. The answer, as they say, might shock you.
Before I begin, I would like to request forgiveness from all gods we humans worship, including Richard Dawkins, because I am about to commit an egregious cricketing sin, for which I know I may burn in the fieriest lake in hell.
I am about to be mildly critical of Kane Williamson.
The handful of you who have not punched the screen in disgust, stick with me.
Asked sometime during last year's World Cup why his team were regarded "the good guys of international cricket", Williamson responded by saying, essentially, that kindness was just in their nature. They were New Zealanders, see, and New Zealanders are laidback and caring and fundamentally decent. The team was merely a reflection of intractable Kiwi-ness. Friendly. Thoughtful. Giving. You know, nice.
Right now, this is a little difficult to argue with. When you watch Mitchell Santner console a distraught Carlos Brathwaite moments after West Indies fall to a dispiriting loss, or you hear the grace with which Williamson mulls over the litany of major misfortunes that cost his team the World Cup, it seems impossible that it was ever any other way. Less than a month after that final, Williamson was playing a practice match north of Colombo, and the smattering of fans who had come had brought a cake to celebrate his birthday. During a drinks break, Williamson jogged over, took a bite of the cake fed to him by a fan, hand-fed the fan in return, and trotted back to joyful cheers. How many cuter things could have happened on planet earth that day? You would basically have to be a monster to not be besotted.
Before Williamson, there was Brendon McCullum - that tattooed little supernova of charisma - who lit not only New Zealand's path to limited-overs prosperity, but also England's.
And then almost everyone who goes to New Zealand comes back raving of the landscapes, yes, but also of the people and their basic human goodness. Right now, they may have the realest world leader around, as well. So it makes sense, right? The New Zealand cricket team is necessarily nice. Because New Zealanders are nice.
And yet, I will ask you to cast your mind back. You don't even have go that far. Try March 2011 in Mirpur - the quarter-final of that year's World Cup. With 101 to get off 22.1 overs, Faf du Plessis ran out AB de Villiers - clearly the key player in the chase. Like sharks on the trail of blood, New Zealand's fielders converged on du Plessis, teeth bared, snapping all at once. Four years later, several members of this New Zealand team - McCullum, Ross Taylor, Daniel Vettori and Martin Guptill - would be darlings of their home World Cup, not a harsh word leaving their lips, nor a bad one said about them. But on this humid Dhaka evening, many were seen rounding on du Plessis and his team-mates, letting fly with the invective. The enduring memory from that evening is Kyle Mills having to be dragged away from an altercation with the South Africa batsmen. Mills, wearing a fluorescent bib, was merely running the drinks.
In the aughts, when Australia's snarling geniuses ruled the cricket world, New Zealand were often in the if-you-can't-beat-em-join-em brigade. Led by Stephen Fleming - stately off the field but frequently ferocious on it - New Zealand found success in making walking dartboards out of visiting captains. It was 23-year-old Graeme Smith who copped the most searing and memorable stream of Fleming abuse. Heading out to begin a tricky chase in a rain-shortened game at Eden Park in 2004, Smith was cornered and gratuitously besieged in full view of the cameras. The South Africa captain lost composure, and eventually the match. In later years Smith would touch on how much he learned on that tour. How some of the famous steel in his eyes was forged in those fires. Soon after that game, asked about New Zealand's psychological warfare, Fleming pivoted neatly to his affable press-conference avatar, and said this: "Graeme is an emotional guy. That was one chink we thought we might explore. He took the bait."
New Zealand's greatest team (aside perhaps from the present one) - the '80s outfit - infamously had its share of prickly characters. Richard Hadlee was galaxies out of his team-mates' league through much of the decade, and was sometimes accused of acting like it. Jeremy Coney later remarked that "the reputation of the team was tarred with avarice and jealousy" when Hadlee kept a Man-of-the-Series car for himself, instead of sharing his loot with the team, as was custom at the time. In Hadlee's defence, he had contributed two such cars to the team kitty previously. But then he'd also occasionally blast team-mates in public for their relative lack of professionalism, including in his newspaper column. The next best player Hadlee shared a New Zealand dressing room with, Martin Crowe, was no less complex, collecting a catalogue of grievances with team-mates and opponents through his playing days (though he would make great efforts to mend those relationships in his final, shining years).
In the '90s, New Zealand once used bottle caps on the ball to gain devastating reverse-swing in Faisalabad; Chaminda Vaas recalls a fired-up Danny Morrison telling him he wanted to kill him; a mini-mutiny soured the tour of the West Indies in 1995-96; and there have been strikes, accusations of undue player power, and of course the acrimonious removal of Taylor as captain in 2012.
None of these is out of step with controversies that any elite sports team finds itself embroiled in from time to time, but that's exactly the point; for almost all of their history, New Zealand have just been a regular elite sports team. Right now the side is led by Williamson, who uniquely has been this serene, magnanimous force for as long as he has been known. But this is also this same side that over the last 20 years has produced stories as saddening as those of Lou Vincent, and for different reasons, Jesse Ryder. McCullum, who shaped our collective present-day admiration for the New Zealand side, has been open about how it arose initially out of what was essentially a public-relations exercise, undertaken during a difficult series in South Africa in 2013.
The nation itself is charmed, to the extent that it is wildly prosperous in comparison to much of the cricket-loving world, and experiences very little of the pressures that bedevil the rest of the global population. As the Christchurch terror attack last year reminded us, however, New Zealand is in many ways a place like any other. If its cricketers have lately become proponents of goodness on the cricket field, it's because they have made conscious choices to embrace humility and grace. The transformation has not been without effort. And anyway, is that not so much more beautiful than the alternative?
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