Odd team out: how New Zealand's eternal underdogs have shocked the world again

The Kiwis are into their sixth World Cup semi-final despite a dismal build-up to the competition, writes David Lloyd
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The Independent Online

The great over-achievers of international cricket have done it again. Few people gave New Zealand even a sniff of a chance against South Africa on Friday and yet here they are once more through to the last four of another World Cup. And the fact that next to no one is backing them to beat Sri Lanka today will come as no surprise whatsoever to anybody in the Black Caps camp.

We keep writing off the Kiwis, and they keep proving us wrong. While South Africa, Australia and England, to name but three of the more fancied sides, set about ripping up the latest one-day script and start thinking four years down the line, New Zealand are playing their sixth semi-final in 10 World Cups.

That is a remarkable effort for a country regularly cast as underdogs even back in the days when only eight teams contested the premier limited-overs tournament. And while the failure to convert any of those five previous chances into a final appearance may suggest a tendency to wilt when the spotlight burns brightest, they should at least have the law of averages on their side in Colombo today.

In many ways, though, New Zealand's progress to the business end of this World Cup really is a shock, rather than the mere eyebrow-raiser of years gone by. Instead of warming up nicely for the competition with a few pleasing wins, they put themselves in cricket's equivalent of the deep freezer by playing hopelessly in 50-over cricket throughout the past year.

What is more, the Kiwis were especially useless on the subcontinent, failing to reach the final of a tri-nations tournament in Sri Lanka, losing 5-0 in India and, easily worst of all, going down 4-0 to Bangladesh. Throw in a 3-2 home defeat by Pakistan and their record coming into this World Cup showed 14 losses in 16 completed 50-over ODIs with 11 of those defeats being consecutive.

Bearing all that in mind, perhaps we can be forgiven for having discounted New Zealand as serious contenders. Except that most of us have discounted them several times before and should be learning a lesson.

So who are these men in black who, against almost all expectations, have emerged from the depths of what must have been a particularly deep cricketing depression to stand tall with three teams – Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan – who have home, or near-home, advantage?

The side contains a few stars super enough to have been big money targets for the Indian Premier League – men like captain Daniel Vettori, who was widely regarded as the world's best orthodox spinner until Graeme Swann dispossessed him of that title, big-hitting opener Brendon McCullum, stylish middle order batsman Ross Taylor and the impressive though injury-plagued all-rounder Jacob Oram. But the list does not go on and on.

They are, though, not short of character. Take Jesse Ryder. If it is a colourful Kiwi you want, then burly batsman Ryder is your man. This is the chap, remember, who once turned his back on New Zealand to play for Ireland – only to be axed by them for failing to turn up for a match. And then, when he did star for the Kiwis during a one-day series against England in 2008, he promptly blotted his copybook by putting his hand through a plate glass window on a night of celebration.

There have been a few other scrapes as well, and New Zealand would have sent him to the last-chance saloon but for the fact the saloon is the very place they want him to avoid. But the boy can bat, as his disciplined 83 off 121 balls against South Africa underlined.

Colourful is not an adjective generally associated with another of New Zealand's better known players, Scott Styris. But dependability, usually with the bat these days and only occasionally with the ball, is an attribute that has encouraged Durham, Essex and Middlesex to value the services of this all-rounder.

But we have still accounted for little more than half a team so enter, please, Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Nathan McCullum, Tim Southee and Luke Woodcock.

Guptill is an opening batsman and probably the side's outstanding fielder (it was his brilliant piece of work that ran out South Africa's lightning quick AB de Villiers in the quarter-final) – pretty remarkable achievements, really, considering he has only two toes on his left foot as the result of being squashed by a fork-lift truck when a teenager.

At 20, Williamson is only just starting to make his way in the game. But he does have a one-day century, against Bangladesh, to his credit and has been signed by Gloucestershire for this summer.

Nathan McCullum has been around for a while now. But the off-spinner is likely to remain in the shadow of his younger brother, Brendon, even though he usually opens the bowling on slow, sub-continent pitches. Tim Southee is a quick of great skill and even more promise and as for left-arm spinner Woodcock, well, he can best be described as a late developer. Now 28, he only recently made his debut but made New Zealand's World Cup squad because they wisely decided that three spinners might be needed on the pitches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

So there we are – a classic case, it seems, of the sum of the parts being more valuable than the individual components. Not that those components are without their value.

"We've got a talented bunch," insists Oram, who must have missed nearly as many matches as he has played (33 Tests and 150 ODIs) because of injuries to almost every part of his body. "Unfortunately we are also inconsistent but I have never been prouder to wear the Silver Fern." Despite their long and proud record of upsetting the odds, most cricket followers will still see New Zealand as a soft touch for Sri Lanka today. They may turn out to be right. But England, to cite just one of those "more talented" sides, would love to be where the Kiwis are right now.

Four unsung heroes

Martin Guptill

After the quarter-final victory over South Africa last Friday, the New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori praised Guptill for his "exceptional" fielding in the covers, which evoked the South African Jonty Rhodes, and his superb run-out of AB de Villiers was a game-changer. Guptill also has a crucial role to play as a steadying influence at the top of the order, and averages 44 in the tournament thus far.

Nathan McCullum

This McCullum is now known for more than just being Brendon's elder brother. Nathan's off-spin has impressed with its guile, subtlety and control. In the quarter-final win over South Africa, he varied his pace and flight intelligently – a markedly slower delivery embarrassed JP Duminy – en route to taking three for 24 from his 10 overs.

Tim Southee

From the moment he took five for 55 on his Test debut as a 19-year-old against England in 2008, it has been clear that the quick bowler possesses a special talent. He has confirmed that impression at this World Cup, bowling with aggression and incisive late swing to claim 15 wickets at 17 so far, including figures of three for 25 against Pakistan.

Kane Williamson

Aged 20, Williamson played with exceptional maturity against South Africa. As New Zealand's innings threatened to subside, Williamson's 38 not out held it together. Both his international centuries, including 131 on his Test debut in India, have come on the subcontinent.