Observations & meditations on the day-to-day

Find Something Black…

Written by my friend Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times day before the 2019 Cricket World Cup Final…

“Find something black to wear tomorrow. Pin a silver fern to it. Open a bottle of Steinlager. You can then consider yourself an honorary Kiwi for a day. If you feel the urge to do an awkward haka in your living room, let the moment pass.

It’s World Cup final day in cricket and if you are not English then presumably you are cheering for New Zealand. As Sharda Ugra, senior writer for ESPNcricinfo puts it, “after your own country, they are everyone’s favourite second team”. Because their competitiveness is not stained by conceit and their skill not sullied by vanity. They are the unstarry team persistently chasing an outsized dream.

One of their great runners, Peter Snell, a three-gold Olympic champion in the 1960s, titled his book, No Bugles, No Drums. It sounds like the story of New Zealand at this Cup. Quiet heroics and no fanfare. When they felled India in the semis, captain Virat Kohli found an apt word for them. They were “braver”, he said.

New Zealand is famous for its film locations, a humane prime minister and for rolling chocolates downhill. For many years in Dunedin, on the steepest street in the world, they send 75,000 Jaffas – a type of round chocolate – skittering down a slope. How can you not cheer for such a land?

If they are eccentric, they are also stylish. Perhaps they have a Zorro complex for they do almost everything sporting in black. Jerseys and names. The All Blacks (rugby), Black Sticks (hockey), Tall Blacks (basketball), Black Caps (cricket) and Wheel Blacks. If you haven’t solved the last one, it’s their wheelchair rugby teams.

New Zealand is one of sport’s great Davids, a spirited sporting land undeterred by its modest numbers. It has few people (4.8 million) in a large land (268,000 sq km) and as John Wright, a former cricket captain who grew up on a farm near Canterbury, says: “It’s an outdoor country.”

Wright, 65, speaks with quiet fondness of a boyhood full of sport, of volunteers who organised fixtures and of a society that “doesn’t put people on a pedestal”.

“Most New Zealand sports teams,” he says, “know that they play bigger, better resourced countries. That’s the reality. So there’s always an understanding that you have to knuckle down, that you’re up against it.”

Sport in New Zealand, as Ben Pulham, a former Kiwi triathlete says, “is something to aspire for”. It’s as if the vast land invites play. Indeed, on the Sport New Zealand website, you can find a sport to try from a list of 106. Axe sports anyone? Shearing perhaps? Kerri-Jo Te Huia once sheared 452 strong wool ewes in nine hours. Evidently everything is competition here.

Their small population has not been a deterrence but possibly an inspiration and New Zealand has tackled the land (the All Blacks have three rugby World Cups) and commanded the waters (rowing golds and the America’s Cup). They’ve had a shot putter Valerie Adams who won two Olympic golds; a driver, Bruce McLaren, who built an F1 team; a No. 1 golfer, Lydia Ko; and a Wimbledon champion. Over a hundred summers ago, Anthony Wilding won four singles titles between 1910-13, lost in the 1914 final and was killed in 1915 during World War I. He was 31.

But tomorrow matters because this nation’s sporting cupboard has an empty space. Cricket’s Cup has eluded them and as Andrew Alderson, a sportswriter with the New Zealand Herald says: “Yes, it’s the missing piece in the jigsaw.” To lose in the final for a second successive time would feel more like curse than coincidence.

In the Cup final New Zealand collide with England, the hosts who battered them in the round-robin phase, but they will not flinch for they are hardy creatures of their geography. As Pulham says: “New Zealand is so remote, the terrain is hard, the weather can be miserable and we’re not crazy wealthy. So we have to earn everything. People are just tough.”

No kidding. Susan Devoy, eight-time British Open squash champion, worked as a builder’s labourer and Trevor Manning, goalkeeper of their 1976 Olympic gold-winning hockey team, had a novel response to his kneecap being smashed with 14 minutes left in that final. As he told The Wellingtonian News: “I just did a couple of squats to let the Aussies know there was nothing wrong with me.”

But perhaps New Zealand deserve a cheer mostly because they are led by a man of decency and distinction. Captain Kane Williamson is a warrior in the guise of a monk. Wright calls him “a very wise young man” while Alderson defines him elegantly. “I don’t think,” he says, “I’ve ever met a New Zealand sportsman, or for that matter any sportsperson, who has such an ego to ability ratio. Low ego and high ability.”

His bowlers create enough swing to impress a jazzman but there will be pressure on Williamson to bat long. Yet he has met expectation calmly all Cup. He has averaged 91.33 and it shows a man of purpose who knows his team are only slightly better than his national bird. The Kiwi, you see, has no tail.

Should these understated underdogs ascend their cricketing Everest and Williamson is lost for words, he can always borrow some from a famous countryman. As Edmund Hillary said after completing another famous quest: “We knocked the b***d off.”

— Rohit Brijnath

— Shomit


Posted in Blog on Tuesday, July 16, 2019