Two major international sporting events wrap up this weekend in ways that reflect the contrasting circumstances of our men’s rugby and cricket teams. The All Blacks undertake their toughest assignment of the inaugural Rugby Championship – playing the Springboks on the high veldt at Soweto’s 95,000-capacity FNB Stadium – with the prize already secured. Win, lose or draw, room will have to be found in the NZRU’s crowded trophy cabinet. At the time of writing, however, it seemed unlikely the Black Caps would feature in the final stages of the Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka. That being the case, they can expect to be welcomed home with the usual sour mix of derision and exasperation from a media and public that refuse to let facts shape their expectations.
As has been pointed out ad nauseam, New Zealand cricket has had just one golden era – the 1980s. That team was really only outgunned by the mighty West Indians, whom they still managed to beat, albeit with a little help from our under-prepared umpires and pitches, in a test series. If you were picking a combined side from that team and the current Black Caps, only three of today’s players would be in serious contention: Brendon McCullum, Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori. And if that hypothetical team were playing test as opposed to limited-overs cricket, arguably none would make the cut, as McCullum no longer keeps wicket and Vettori’s days as an attacking spin bowler seem to be behind him. Since the Richard Hadlee era – for that’s essentially what it was – the Black Caps have had a worldclass strike bowler only when Shane Bond was fit and available. Which sadly wasn’t all that often: Hadlee took 431 wickets in 86 tests; Bond took 87 in 18.
The reality is we rarely produce players of the calibre of Hadlee and Martin Crowe around whom a winning team can be built. As former England captain Nasser Hussain emphasised in commentary when the two sides met, the England team feels very comfortable playing the Black Caps. We don’t have fast bowlers who generate reverse swing at 145km/h, or mystery spinners who bowl a range of deliveries and turn it both ways with no discernible change of action. Nor do we have batsmen who dominate consistently, as opposed to blow hot and cold, with most of the hot stuff turned on against second-tier opposition. But as the All Blacks demonstrated so spectacularly against Argentina in La Plata, they remain the gold standard.
Interestingly, given the importance attached to playing at home, in recent times the All Blacks have produced their most compelling performances overseas. Last weekend’s effort evoked memories of the demolitions of France in Paris (2004), Lyon (2006) and Marseille (2009). Two of these games were played in the afternoon in fine conditions, the ideal setting for the high-tempo handling game to which the All Blacks aspire, but which can be difficult to execute on a New Zealand winter’s night. It may also be that getting out of the country is liberating. Richie McCaw’s 2013 sabbatical is as much about escaping the pressure of being public property as giving the body a break. Before the Argentinean game, Ma‘a Nonu complained the All Blacks can’t win with the public: if they run up a big score, it’s because the opposition is hopeless; if they don’t, they haven’t played well. Paradoxically, that relentless pressure to perform is probably the most important factor in their outstanding away record: they are the All Blacks; the venue is irrelevant.