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“I’d like to think people are starting to realise we’re not just flying under the radar,” said Jacob Oram this week. That is as close to self-aggrandisement as you are likely to get from a New Zealand cricketer who knows his place in a land where rugby remains the sporting faith of choice.
The current World Cup in the West Indies has so far proved longer on confounded predictions than drama or quality, but a New Zealand triumph cannot be ruled out even if the semi-finals (four to date) have previously proved a bridge too far for them.
In fast bowler Shane Bond, the Black Caps have a not-so secret agent in their mission to unseat reigning champions Australia, the opposition in their final Super Eight match in Grenada next Friday, and possibly in the semi-finals or perhaps even the final; this Saturday’s game against South Africa on the same isle will go a long way towards determining which.
A month ago, the biggest question mark over the Kiwis concerned Bond’s fitness: in six years he has won just 16 Test caps, and missed as many one-day internationals as he has played. New Zealand’s recent record sequence of nine consecutive ODI wins, ended only on Thursday when their batting for once failed against Sri Lanka, testifies to the rudeness of his health.
If there is one bowler who has the measure of Australia’s swaggering batsmen, it is 31-year-old Bond, whose bone-jarring speed, controlled swing and canny changes of pace have reaped 34 Australian wickets at 13.88 in one-day events. Since the champions’ last World Cup defeat in May 1999, no frontline opposing bowler can match that average.
The victimisation does not stop there. Since 1983, no bowler has done better against Australia in a World Cup than Bond’s 6-23 at Port Elizabeth in 2003. And it was against the same foe in the recent CB triangular series that he claimed his first ODI hat-trick. He also picked up 5-23 against Australia in the opening game of their ensuing three-match encounter. The final 0-3 scoreline was the world champions’ worst licking for more than a decade.
“I know where I can bowl to these guys,” Bond explained with all the secrecy and succinctness expected of a former policeman.
With Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar and England’s Steve Harmison fading, he and South Africa’s Makhaya Ntini are the game’s premier pace merchants.
Over the past month, his value has been inestimable. Even after a luckless stint against Sri Lanka, his tournament average (12.80) and economy rate (2.57 runs per over) headed both charts. He has sliced through top orders and punched holes in the middle, as lethal with yorkers and outswingers as with the slower balls that baffled England’s Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff in one match-deciding over.
Unused as that body is to regular action – Bond has never stayed upright long enough to last a three-Test series – the decision to rest him against Canada and restrict him to eight overs on Thursday were nothing if not pragmatic.
No less crucial to New Zealand’s challenge is their versatility. No side in the Caribbean possess so many jacks of multiple trades.
Oram, Scott Styris and spinner Daniel Vettori have scored 1,000 runs and taken 100 wickets in ODIs, while Brendon McCullum has been the most dynamic wicketkeeper-batsman on view.
Nobody embodies the exceptional spirit coursing through the dressing room better than the towering Oram, whose athleticism and batting finesse are astonishing for a man a whisker shy of two metres. When a broken index finger threatened his involvement in the World Cup, he said he was prepared to have it amputated.
Then there is the team-within-a-team: Stephen Fleming, the game’s most perspicacious captain, and John Bracewell, a coach of acuity, thoroughness and depth.
Fleming stated his philosophy in Richard Boock’s 2004 biography Balance of Power: “The strong leaders are the ones more prepared and more resourceful. They are not reactive, they’re proactive. Often when you have someone shouting, screaming and waving, it’s because they’re actually reacting to a situation . . . a good leader should be ahead of that.”
Bracewell won his spurs presiding over Gloucestershire’s improbable rebirth as England’s premier one-day side. He focuses on the “extra 1 per cent” that turns “nearlys” and “almosts” into fulfilment: aggressive fielding and running between the wickets, and assertive body language.
“We’re trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves,” says Oram, reflecting the sentiments of Graham Henry, coach of New Zealand’s outstanding rugby union side. “If we get too far ahead of ourselves we will fall over,” Henry has contended in the build-up to September’s Rugby World Cup, for which the All Blacks are hot favourites.
The prospect of All Blacks and Black Caps ending the year having won an equal number of World Cups is one that the country’s cricketers – perenially overshadowed by the winter game – would relish.
■Australia qualified for the semi-finals of the World Cup after a crushing nine-wicket victory over Ireland in their Super Eight game in Bridgetown, Barbados on Friday. Pace bowlers Glenn McGrath and Shaun Tait skittled Ireland out for 91 and the World Cup holders then hit the runs inside 13 overs with the loss of just one wicket.
England batsman Alastair Cook, who was not selected for the World Cup, hit 142 for the MCC against county champions Sussex at Lord’s. MCC reached 332-6 at the close of play on day one of the season-opening game.