Team spirit is New Zealand’s forte

Brothers in arms... Brendon McCullum (right) and Nathan McCullum celebrate Kiwis’ win in the second T20 match against India.-AP Brothers in arms... Brendon McCullum (right) and Nathan McCullum celebrate Kiwis’ win in the second T20 match against India.

The New Zealand team isn’t star-studded but plays the percentages better than most celebrated outfits. It can surprise and sting; its sum is invariably greater than its parts, writes S. Dinakar.

Shorter versions of the game are never really true indicators of a team’s ability or depth. Cricket’s abbreviated forms tend to mask weaknesses, even up contests.

This is precisely why we need to be guarded in praise even while acknowledging New Zealand’s 2-0 verdict over world champion India in the Twenty20 internationals.

The Kiwis are still in the middle of a demanding transitional phase, but the signs lately have been encouraging. There seems to be a distinct buzz about Daniel Vettori’s men. The host’s victories in Christchurch and Wellington were underlined by clinical efficiency, a Kiwi hallmark. Brendon McCullum played a pivotal role but the wins were largely team efforts.

The side isn’t star-studded — in stark contrast to India — but plays the percentages better than most celebrated outfits. New Zealand can surprise and sting; its sum is invariably greater than its parts.

The early signs of Kiwi resurgence were visible down under this season. New Zealand ambushed Australia in the first two ODIs and was better placed to clinch the rain-shortened decider before inclement weather ended the duel under lights. Australia itself is in the rebuilding mode after the departure of stalwarts but the unfancied Kiwis still deserve credit for their display of fight and steel. After a traumatic phase, the pieces finally seem to be falling in place for Vettori’s boys.

New Zealand doesn’t have a large talent pool to choose from: it is a country of small population. Given the constraints it has done a tremendous job in putting together competitive sides.

The fearless McCullum powered the side to starts with his flashing blade. Martin Guptill, a top-order batsman, played with composure. The talented Ross Taylor carved efforts of rare fluency, Grant Elliott’s bludgeoning hits in the last stretch proved decisive.

Unsung cricketers like Niel Broom grew in stature. The imposing but alarmingly injury-prone Jacob Oram was back — albeit as a pure batsman — for the Twenty20 games against India and unleashed the big blows in the climactic stages. Oram’s fitness will be critical to New Zealand’s fortunes. Apart from his value as a punishing left-hander, Oram’s off-stump line, away movement and bounce will add much to the Kiwis in the Test series. His height and high-arm action transform him into a testing bowler.

And Ryder, the wild kid of Kiwi cricket, is someone who could ride on his natural gifts if he puts his mind to the task. In Ryder and the left-handed Daniel Flynn — he could be a key member of the Test squad — the Kiwis have exciting young batsmen who could lend Taylor and McCullum support. If Ryder is a clean and powerful striker, Flynn can caress the ball through the off-side with all the grace and timing of a southpaw. Much hinges on how Vettori handles his young guns.

So far, Vettori has captained well and bowled his left-arm spinners with guile and skill. It is never easy to step into the shoes of a long-standing and accomplished leader such as Stephen Fleming. Gradually Vettori is settling into the top job. He has endured a rough ride as a captain from 2007 — New Zealand lost the Test series in South Africa, England and Australia by 2-0 margins and 2-1 to England at home. On the brighter side, the Kiwis have had their moments of success in the ODIs, a 3-1 series triumph in England not the least among them.

Vettori is calm under pressure, reads the flow of the game well, can be intelligent with his response. Now, the young side is rallying around its skipper.

In the days ahead, the focus will be on Vettori. Few spinners in contemporary cricket get the ball to drift as well as he does. Not many use the change of pace and angles better. But then, Vettori is the only world class bowler in the side. The pressure on him is immense.

With Shane Bond joining the Indian Cricket League, New Zealand has been deprived of its prime strike bowler. With his speed, swing and bounce, Bond meant much to the Kiwi line-up. He was the spearhead, someone who could slice through any batting line-up.

New Zealand, which essentially relied on a pace-oriented line-up, has subsequently struggled with its bowling. Chris Martin, the most qualified among the other pacemen, has gone off the boil.

There have, however, been a few positives. The young Tim Southee makes up for lack of pace with the ability to achieve compelling sideways movement. Iain O’ Brien has operated with heart and a fair measure of control even if he doesn’t exactly threaten the limbs. Kyle Mills is a canny seamer. And the return of the pacier Ian Butler is good news for the Kiwis, particularly in the context of the Test series ahead. Then there is Jeeten Patel, an off-spinner with possibilities.

The lack of firepower notwithstanding, New Zealand has a disciplined attack. This is an outfit that has excelled with its planning and execution in the past. The bowling has often risen above its limitations; inspired fielding can also lift bowling.

The bowlers will need runs on the board in the ODIs and Tests. And wicketkeeper-batsman McCullum will carry a lot of expectations. He is a fine ’keeper of balance, easy movements and quick-silver reflexes but these are days when he is grabbing headlines with his rapier-like shots.

The big names — Nathan Astle and Fleming — have drifted into the sunset and McCullum all of a sudden finds himself as a senior batsman. He has responded well to the challenge. McCullum is light on his feet and heavy with his barrage of strokes. Yet, his match-winning efforts against India in the Twenty20 games were as much about focus and commitment as flair. He applied himself and guided the side home under excruciating tension in the second match.

New Zealand will need more moments of inspirations as it seeks to recapture past glory. It will also attempt to bind even more strongly as a pack. Team-spirit is the side’s biggest strength.