Hoping to get its due

The Key Men ... Skipper Stephen Fleming, Shane Bond and Daniel Vettori (below).-Pics: S. SUBRAMANIUM The Key Men ... Skipper Stephen Fleming, Shane Bond and Daniel Vettori (below).

New Zealand has suffered a lot in recent times due to injuries to its key players. The team, thus, would begin its campaign in the 2007 World Cup with the prayer that its players stay fit, writes G. Viswanath.

Stephen Fleming has been the face of New Zealand cricket for more than a decade. When in full flow, he is a delight to watch. He not only plays the copybook strokes but also improvises when needed, much to the delight of the spectators. Without doubt, he is one of modern cricket's finest left-handers who means aggression right from the word go.

Fleming is also the longest-serving captain in today's cricket. Whether standing in the slips or in the covers, his mind is always trying to detect weaknesses in the rival batsmen and plotting their downfall. He has played the role of the captain with pride. Not unduly worried by failures, he has led his players with distinction. He is the kind of leader who is ever ready to take on the mightiest of challenges.

Though Fleming rarely shows any emotions on the field or at media conferences and talks with a clipped accent that is difficult to comprehend, his views make a lot of sense. And on many occasions he has made it clear that his team had not been given its due.

The ICC World Cup in the Caribbean Islands will give Fleming another chance — perhaps his last — to win the trophy that his nation has not been able to lay its hands on for 32 years.

New Zealand's record in the West Indies is abysmal. The conditions there will not be favourable to the team, which reached the semifinal of the 1992 Benson & Hedges World Cup.

In the 1992 edition, which New Zealand jointly hosted with Australia, Martin Crowe's team outwitted its opponents on the slow wickets of Eden Park, Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington before running into Pakistan at Christchurch, where it was felled by the skilful Wasim Akram, who fully exploited the seamer-friendly conditions.

New Zealand came close to taking revenge in the semifinal at Eden Park, but Inzamam-ul-Haq (60 in 37 balls) changed the course of the match. It was the third time — after the Prudential World Cup in England in 1975 and 1979 — that New Zealand had advanced to the semifinals of this championship.

New Zealand has plenty of talent to match the skills of its opponents and overcome the assorted conditions. In recent times, its key players have suffered from injuries and hence the team has not been able to play its best XI. New Zealand would definitely begin its campaign to the 2007 World Cup with the prayer that its players stay fit.

Fast bowler Shane Bond, with his ability to swing and cut the ball at good pace, is one of New Zealand's key players. The man who rocked Australia and England four years ago in South Africa, has been in and out of action since 2003 owing to a back problem.

Daniel Vettori is an accomplished and respected left-arm spinner and a capable batsman too. New Zealand's fortunes would depend a lot on how Fleming employs Vettori — especially with the Power Plays giving the game a new dimension. Should off-spinner Jeetan Patel be selected in the 15, he could turn out to be a handy bowler for the Kiwis.

When Sir Richard Hadlee — he hated playing one-day matches — was the selector he believed that a player must be exceptional in any one department of the game, or he must have the combined skills of a batsman, bowler and fielder to stake his claim in the team. New Zealand has largely moved with the Hadlee formula. Jacob Oram, Brendon McCullum, Craig McMillan, Scott Styris and Andre Adams are all capable of changing the complexion of the game with the bat and smart fielding. They also can be effective as bowlers. Unfortunately for the Kiwis, Nathan Astle has announced his retirement and this is a blow to the team.

Fleming's team will have all its segments covered, but as coach John Bracewell has articulated, it's the inconsistency in batting — as seen against Sri Lanka in the homes series recently — that New Zealand has to pay attention to.

In the 1992 World Cup it was the success of its batsmen such as Martin Crowe, Andrew Jones, Mark Greatbatch and Ken Rutherford that held New Zealand together. It also gave leeway to its medium pace bowlers such as Chris Harris, Gavin Larsen, Rod Latham and fast bowler Willie Watson to contain their rivals. Off-spinner Dipak Patel provided the surprise packet operating with the new ball.

New Zealand attracted attention in the 2003 World Cup, thanks to Fleming's breathtaking innings against South Africa in Johannesburg. His attacking century on a helpful wicket threw the host out of the knock-out stage. In 1999 in England, New Zealand's campaign was brought to a halt by Pakistan's Shoaib Akhtar.

New Zealand has always been seen as a team worthy of winning the World Cup. In the Caribbean, the team will be all geared up for the challenge.