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The Alchemists – How New Zealand punch above their weight

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Can New Zealand go one step further than last World Cup and win it this time?

Can New Zealand go one step further than last World Cup and win it this time? ©Getty

When James Neesham took the final wicket to seal a remarkable semi-final victory over India on Wednesday, the look on his captain’s face almost suggested that New Zealand had been beaten. Kane Williamson’s reaction, at a time when he would have been forgiven for celebrating wildly, was understated and calm.

Without getting too whimsical about it, Williamson’s response pointed to the values that underpin New Zealand cricket more generally. It is an environment where Tom Blundell, the wicket-keeper, walked home in his whites after scoring a Test hundred against West Indies at the Basin Reserve a couple of years ago. “The guys are humble and pretty low-key,” Heath Mills, chief executive of New Zealand Cricket Players’ Association (NZCPA), tells Cricbuzz. “They don’t necessarily like the attention.”

Low-key and humble maybe, but New Zealand have now reached two World Cup finals. They have made it through to the semi-finals in five of the last six tournaments. They are currently ranked second in the Tests above both England and Australia, two of the three financial behemoths of the game. If results go their way, they could be number one by the end of August.

That they have been able to enjoy consistent success is no mean feat given the vast gulf in resources between New Zealand and the Big Three of India, England and Australia. Being a nation of just 4.5 million people means there is only a small market for the game, and the time zone makes it near-on impossible to sell a money-spinning T20 league into other cricket countries. In the last financial year up to July 2018, New Zealand Cricket’s (NZC) revenues were US$38m. By comparison, their opponents on Sunday garnered income of US$177million in their last financial year.

As well as less financial power, New Zealand also has a far shallower talent pool available to them than their World Cup final opponents. There are just 115 contracted players in New Zealand, 15 at each of the six domestic teams and 25 centrally contracted to NZC. That is about 25% of the amount of professionals that England can choose from.

It is a huge disparity in resources and yet while New Zealand have been mainstays at the business end of World Cups in recent times, England have not reached the semi-final stage for 27 years.

New Zealand’s success is a remarkable tale of squeezing the most out of what they have.

What NZC lack in funding or players, it makes up for with a good dose of common sense and a system which operates to some key fundamentals. Perhaps the most important is that every part of that system knows its role is to produce a strong Blackcaps team. “We have our six major associations and their primary job is to be six high performance centres and to produce Blackcaps,” Mills says. “That’s their primary reason for being. It’s not written down anywhere really but that’s well understood by everyone.”

Decisions at the domestic level, whether to do with the development of certain players or the resting of internationals, are taken in the context of what is best for the New Zealand team. “Although all of our first class sides and their High Performance systems have their own identity, we all work together as one system for a common purpose,” Bryan Stronach, NZC’s General Manager of High Performance, tells Cricbuzz. “We see that as a strength.”

To have such a common purpose is not found in all cricketing countries. The debate about whether the priority of the 18 English first-class counties is to produce players for England or to look after their own interests still rumbles on. South Africa, who are on a similar financial tier to New Zealand, do not have as much unity within their domestic structure and are at the opposite end of the scale as far as governance is concerned.

Because New Zealand’s clarity of purpose is not only seen in their domestic system. NZC have an independent board, reducing the potential for conflicts of interest. That allows strategic decisions to be far more joined up than they otherwise might be. “Their sole responsibility is to make decisions in the best interests of the game as a whole,” Mills says. “You don’t get compromised in your decision making. There isn’t really any political interference in the decision making process. That’s a real strength.”

So too is the diversity of NZC’s governance. Debbie Hockley, NZC’s current President, is a former New Zealand cricketer and the first female president of any ICC full member board. There are three women on the NZC board alongside five men. There are former players providing cricketing expertise but also business leaders with pedigree in law, finance and governance. It is an impressive range of qualities and experience which brings a diversity of thought and challenge to the running of NZC that other boards, such as the ECB, are only beginning to replicate.

A constant challenge for cricket is how to escape the shadow of rugby union in a country that is mad for the game. The All Blacks are arguably the world’s greatest sports team and rugby is ingrained in the culture and fabric of the country. Rather than attempt to compete with rugby, cricket tried to learn from it with a certain cross-pollination of ideas between administrators. Rob Nicholls, the head of the rugby union players’ association, works in the same building as Mills, for example.

Although rugby impacts on cricket in terms of exposure and the need to compete for advertising and engagement, the success of the rugby system has provided a template for cricket to follow with the centralised contracts system and a pyramid structure where everyone is working for the good of the All Blacks. “I wouldn’t say in cricket that we have been as quick or as good at getting to the position they have got to but we are getting there,” Mills says.

Given the relative lack of resources and small player pool, as well as the need to attract athletes away from rugby, identifying and nurturing talent is a key focus for NZC. “We have to look at things differently,” says Stronach. “We work backwards. We start by looking at the type of person and player that we need at the top level in order to achieve our goals. Once we identify this, we look to set up our talent development programme to achieve those things.”

Rather than spread the net wide, NZC focus on a smaller number of cricketers in a bid to maximise what they have. “We don’t have enough resources to develop everybody and give them all the experiences and support that they would require,” Stronach adds. “That means that we have to identify the right ones and then focus on them. This is by no means perfect. People develop at different rates. We get it wrong a lot but that is part of it. We just have to stay flexible.”

The All Blacks famously have a “no di**heads” policy and their cricketing counterparts have a similar focus on the character of the players going through their programme. Since Brendon McCullum became captain in 2012, New Zealand have shown the world that you can win games of cricket without being brash and arrogant or sledging anyone who comes into earshot. England, their opponents on Sunday, have followed their lead.

“We think the key is looking wider than just the talent of an athlete,” Stronach says. “Of course that is important but it is also the experiences they have had, their character and the social support that is around them that helps to create great people which in turn creates great athletes.”

Developing talent is one thing but keeping it is quite another, particularly at a time when the opportunities for players are greater and more varied than at any other time in the game’s history. While countries such as South Africa and West Indies are losing players regularly to Kolpak contracts in England or the T20 franchise scene, New Zealand’s retention of their best players stands in contrast.

Contractual flexibility has been a key part of the reason why, allowing the players to top up their relatively modest NZC salaries with T20 or county gigs. The players can earn good money, commensurate with other players from Australia or England, whilst at the same time remaining loyal and available to New Zealand. “NZC doesn’t feel the need to control them all the time,” Mills says. “We’ve got to a real harmonious position where our guys can play in the IPL, the CPL or the T20 Blast because we allow that flexibility. NZC have embraced that.”

Although rugby is pervasive, at the moment cricket is taking centre stage. The Lord’s final will be shown on free-to-air TV and cricket is saturating the media. “Rugby is the biggest sport in New Zealand and we all know that,” Mills says. “People take notice of cricket at certain times of the year or when the team has moments like this. It’s fantastic to see people who aren’t normally cricket fans who are now getting engaged and are really proud.

“The next few days are going to be great and capture the imagination of the public which is what you want for your sport.”

The World Cup is not the end point for cricket in New Zealand, however. There is a real appetite to keep improving. Corporate “visions” are so often little more than meaningless soundbites but New Zealand Cricket’s feels more substantial: “To truly connect New Zealand through our spirit of cricket, we need to push on. This is a journey not a destination. We must keep pushing boundaries to grow the game.”

It is a theme that continually comes up when talking to people involved with cricket in New Zealand. They know their system is not perfect. They cite areas to work on, issues that need to be fixed. Women’s cricket, for example, is a focus area for both NZC and NZCPA and club cricket needs more investment to raise the standard. They are proud of what they achieve but don’t want to seem to be bragging for fear that it might all come crashing down around them.

“It sounds like we are nailing everything,” Stronach says. “This is not the case. We still have a long way to go. We still have some lofty goals that we have not yet achieved.”

One of those goals is to win the World Cup. They may, or may not, do that on Sunday at Lord’s. But either way, getting to another final is a further reinforcement of the quality of New Zealand’s cricket system which allows them to compete against better resourced countries. Not that you will hear them shouting about it.

© Cricbuzz

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