The barometer to knowing whether a cricket team enters the realm of “the greatest” is when comparisons lose relevance and they set and fulfil expectations of their own.
Think the West Indies through the 1980s with their pace battery and combative batting line-up led by Sir Vivian Richards; Australia in the 1930s and 1940s dominated by Sir Donald Bradman but punctuated by World War II; and Australia from the late 1990s to 2007 with a completely balanced side underpinned by Shane Warne’s leg spin.
Winning became a habit. They charted their own path rather than being taunted to emulate the feats of others.
The current New Zealand side are not in that realm, but tracking in the right direction. No longer do fans wonder which Black Caps side will turn up, at least at home.
The consistency is remarkable, and the second test victory against the West Indies at the Basin Reserve extended their streak in undefeated home tests to a record 15 dating back to March 2017 against South Africa. What’s more, the latest innings-and-12 run triumph was achieved without talisman Kane Williamson as he sits poised in life’s slips awaiting the delivery of his and wife Sarah’s first child.
The incumbents still have the cross of last summer’s 3-0 loss in Australia to bear, and need a final frontier on which to hinge their success. A series victory in South Africa or India, or taking out next year’s inaugural World Test Championship final would do the trick.
The temptation is to compare them with the obvious benchmark, the “professional” pioneers of the 1980s. However, pitting two eras against each other tends to generate an unnecessary critique. The quotation marks around professional are there for a reason.
Apart from core protagonists Sir Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, John Wright and Geoff Howarth, the majority were amateur. Today’s representatives, thanks to the incomparable work of the New Zealand Cricket Players Association formed in 2002, have the incentive of salaries to pursue their dreams.
What the core of incumbents have achieved since the 2013 ground zero mauling for 45 by South Africa in Cape Town has been monumental, first through captain Brendon McCullum and coach Mike Hesson and now via Kane Williamson and Gary Stead.
Much can be linked to the “Eureka!” moment afterwards when McCullum had a beer with the coaching staff.
“The team had no ‘soul’,” he said in his 2016 Lord’s Cowdrey lecture. “We were full of bluster and soft as putty.”
Compare that to Watling summing up the environment a year ago in Wisden Cricket Monthly:
“We feel like we can win games of cricket whether in front or behind, and we’ve learnt that from tricky situations over a number of years.”
Perhaps the current era can be summed up with a diplomatic safety net: “Arguably” New Zealand’s best test era.
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