In the end, the end came at the beginning, but for some reason even the end felt like a beginning of a kind. After witnessing New Zealand’s semi-final victory against South Africa, I developed an almost religious conviction in the Black Caps infallibility. Read that line again. Believe me, I find it just as strange as you do to see those words composed, in that order and with our national cricket team, the subject of the sentence. But, I was far from alone.
The game, as it turns out, as a competition, was effectively extinguished in the first over. Brendon McCullum, the man atop the great pyramid of belief that he had helped build in previous weeks fell. Below him was the team; Guptill, Elliott, Williamson, Southee, Boult and below them were the coaches, trainers, administrators and the bus driver, who all saw him go. The fans: taxi drivers, farmers, nurses, teachers, internet trolls etc watched and knew in their hearts, instantly, that the spell had been broken as the bails hit the pitch at the MCG.
But then, an entirely more shocking thing happened. It’s not that we didn’t care that we lost. It was more that we allowed ourselves to define our own idea of what success was in the context of international sport. It wasn’t the old “oh, didn’t we do well, such a small country, we are” trope of the 1980s. It wasn’t the hard old school attitude, one that appears to be favoured in Australia, of winning at all costs and shaming those who don’t. We weren’t just happy to be taking part either. The rugby-style inquisition, attributing blame, sacking coaches did not ensued. We didn’t blame anyone: the pitch, the sledging, the size of the ground. We were beaten by a better side. Simple.
Instead, what appeared to be happening was New Zealand cricket fans, decided that the journey was more important than the destination, through these weeks we had learnt more about the players, ourselves as fans and what was possible than we ever knew before. We decided this knowledge and experience was valuable. It wasn’t a World Cup. It was actually more tangible.
It happened even before the final. That morning there was a flurry of open letters, which still continues. Most of these were written by New Zealand males. Often thought to be stoic “men of few words” many offerings were full of emotion and quite lyrical. Everyone was allowed to write about how much they meant to each other – but it was cool, because it was about the cricket, right? It seemed like a victory in itself. We all went on this ride in our own way, each of us. I sat with my dad in the stands at Eden Park and he, born in India, a resident here for 40 years, cheered a man, born in South Africa, performing heroic deeds wearing the Silver Fern. Forty thousand people were having the same experience with whoever they were with. It was beautiful, it really was, the transcendental joy of that moment floored everyone.
But what was really happening above all was that the gift of cricket was being passed to the next generation. The Black Caps who performed so well were, many of them, the children of 1992, who saw that team give this great game the place in the public imagination it deserves. Despite being very good at the sport, cricket in New Zealand between home World Cups, is a global sport sandwiched into the five available days a year free of rugby. It pops up, supporters come out of the closet briefly, and as soon as they are unfurled it is time to roll up the flags. To follow games played overseas, it’s often a choice between the thwack of leather on willow and sleep.
While it would be nice to think the country won’t have to wait another 23 years to see the Black Caps make another World Cup final, it is hard to see us getting a team this good on the park anytime soon. There are positive signs, Corey Anderson, Trent Boult, Tim Southee will all be at the next one. Mike Hesson is a great coach, in a sport where sometimes what a coach actually does is uncertain. But it is likely McCullum will not be returning and if anyone needed a demonstration of his importance in the whole thing, they needn’t look further than last night.
The current New Zealand captain was ten years old in 1992 and talks of being inspired by Martin Crowe and his men. That is the real importance of what happened during the tournament. Somewhere in New Zealand, a kid who didn’t play cricket has picked up a bat or a ball. Somewhere in this country, a kid who already plays now knows what heights can be reached today and will want to go further tomorrow. For our country, this has been the prize.