Cricket: Dylan Cleaver – Inside the Black Caps’ summer of supremacy

The end of the start happened on November 27, 2020, when Mitchell Santner launched Kieron Pollard into the stands at Eden Park to win a rain-truncated T20.

The end of the end happened 125 nights later, late on Maundy Thursday, when Nasum Ahmed sliced Glenn Phillips to Tim Southee as New Zealand won a rain-truncated T20 at Eden Park.

In between, some stuff happened.

We must resist the temptation to reach for the thesaurus to search for new ways to say the same thing, but what New Zealand have done this summer really has been unprecedented, unparalleled, singular and unmatched.

If you think that’s an exaggeration, overstatement, hyperbole, embellishment or overkill, then think again.

Seven series played, seven series won. Twenty-one matches played, 17 wins, three losses and one no result.

Four tests played, four wins and qualification for the inaugural World Test Championship final secured.

New Zealanders scored 10 centuries between them this summer, two of them doubles, while only Jermaine Blackwood and Fawad Alam reached three figures against.

Important numbers, all of them, but the one that paints a complete picture of the Black Caps’ dominance is this: across all formats they have amassed 5357 for 119 wickets, the rest have mustered 4435 for 202.

That’s right, even with the bulk of the matches being T20s, they’re averaging 45 for every partnership, while taking a wicket every 22 runs scored against them. If this was softball, you’d apply the mercy rule.

The team’s dominance has been so complete that a couple of historically bizarre narratives emerged. One was that New Zealand were just doing ho-hum New Zealand things against ho-hum teams in ho-hum conditions. The other was that the Black Caps didn’t “deserve” to qualify for the WTC final.

To address the first, it is enough to say that the very idea that New Zealand is expected to smash all-comers on home turf shows just how far they’ve come in a relatively short space of time.

For the majority of their history New Zealand has been a bona fide lightweight, slowly moving into a kind of purgatory where they were better than some teams but palpably not one of the sport’s big boys.

That middling status can lead to an existential weltschmerz, but judging by the way the team is now viewed as a home-ground bully, they have climbed out of that funk uncommonly quickly.

This is a team that has won less than a quarter of the 446 tests it has played, yet sweeping a test summer against Pakistan, a team that before the tour led the head-to-head 25-12 overall and 10-7 in this country, is considered par for the course.

While the West Indies result was more predictable, New Zealand leads that head-to-head 17-13 only by virtue of winning eight of the past nine tests between them.

Before letting this point go, it should be remembered that New Zealand had the worst of the batting conditions in three of the four tests, while the fourth at Bay Oval was probably a toss-up.

As for the WTC qualification, the entire process was a quirk. Don’t take my word for it, a number of credible online sources indicate the world has been rocked for much of the past 14 months by a global pandemic.

Did New Zealand benefit from re-jigged scheduling more than most? Not really. After getting their clocks cleaned 0-3 in Australia they had to do a lot of things right – which they did, including beating India 2-0 – and rely on Australia doing a lot of things wrong – which they did, including losing to a second-string Indian team 1-2 at home and losing points for tardy over rates.

If anything, New Zealand could have felt aggrieved if they didn’t make it because a 1-0 series win against England weirdly didn’t count even though it took place during the qualification window.

So just embrace it.

Most of the above can be worked out on a calculator. While cricket tragics have a deep and abiding respect for numbers, they speak little to the romance of the game.

Cricket has an element of maths, yes, and history, but at its best there’s also a lot of English. Cricket is a collection of short stories and characters.

Each century is a drama – and Henry Nicholls’ century at the Basin Reserve had drama while the Windies provided farce – and each wicket a plot twist.

It doesn’t matter if you view this season through a maths, history or English lens, it leads to the same thesauric answer: this was a summer of profound dominance, supremacy, ascendancy and authority.

Here is another way of looking at it: on my unscientific Black Caps 2020-21 Summer Hero Power Rankings, I have Glenn Phillips coming in at seventh equal, yet he has enjoyed a sensational, breakthrough season.

OK, you asked for it, here they are.

Black Caps 2020-21 Summer Hero Power Rankings*

10. Mitchell Santner
Pros: That one-handed return catch at Mt Maunganui that has effectively taken NZ to the WTC final.
Black mark: This spot probably should have gone to Jimmy Neesham.

9. Ish Sodhi
Pros: Takes wickets like a horse eats apples – greedily. Takes wickets with bad balls – a handy quality.
Black mark: Moves laterally in the field like a Suez Canal tanker.

7=. Glenn Phillips
Pros: Scored T20 century. Bludgeons big sixes. Runs around like a labrador pup. Has the confidence to bowl spin in international cricket.
Black marks: Questionable ability to bowl spin in international cricket.

7=. Henry Nicholls
Pros: Two big test centuries, one of them on a dodgy leg. Fast wheels, small stride. Hypnotises fielders.
Black mark: Has yet to say anything remotely quotable.

6. Neil Wagner
Pros: Bowled lots of overs on two broken toes. Did you not hear me? Bowled lots of overs on BROKEN TOES.
Black marks: Scared of needles.

5. Daryl Mitchell
Pros: First test ton. First ODI ton. Batted like a pro. Took the catch of the summer. Best sounding bats in team.
Black marks: Constipated start to run up. Expensive bowling. Haircut.

4. Tim Southee
Pros: Never unavailable. Takes wickets. Takes catches. Bowls when pressure is on. Leads when asked to. Good-looking man.
Black marks: Talks way too fast in post-match TV interviews. Batting.

3. Devon Conway
Even better than advertised. Those cover drives. And pulls. Emigrated from South Africa to New Zealand, not England or Australia (ha ha).
Black marks: Yet to play a test (not his fault). Dodgy wicketkeeping.

2. Kyle Jamieson
Pros: Took wicketsfor fun in tests (and Plunket Shield). Developed an outrageous inswinger. Scored handy runs, Always looked fired up. Became a multi-millionaire. Will win the Sir Richard Hadlee Medal.
Black marks: Got pumped in the transtasman T20s. Threw a ball at a batsman.

1. Kane Williamson
Pros: Scored three test centuries, two of them big doubles on green surfaces. Became a father. Led impressively. Sensible use of zinc on bottom lip.
Black marks: Missed a lot of cricket. Sore elbow. Riley Meredith issues.

* Weighting was given to test performances, quality mansmanship (eg low-key bat raising, indefatigable autograph work on the boundary and stopping to say hello to journalists), and bravery under duress. No correspondence will be entered into.

Jamieson’s emergence as a world-class performer was one of the major talking points, as was the decision by the brain trust of the Royal Challengers Bangalore to turn him into a very wealthy young man. As if by some universal decree, the cricketing gods chose that time to send Australia here for a T20 series to remind everybody that Jamieson is brilliant but not infallible.

He’s going to be just fine, though.

Many others who made their marks, from Lockie Ferguson blitzing the West Indies in a T20 at Eden Park with a five-for delivered at extreme pace, to Martin Guptill rekindling his form with a sensational 97 in the second T20against Australia.

Finn Allen was clean bowled to the first ball he faced in international cricket,then reverse swept a four to get off the mark in the second. Todd Astle got one chance – and only went and took 4-13 in a 10-over match.

There were glimpses of Will Young’s talent, Jimmy Neesham’s final over against Australia in Dunedin was ballsy, and Trent Boult’s performance across that series reminded everyone of his class.

But there’s another Boult story that tickled this fancy more than many of the “big” moments of the summer.

It’s not the sort of thing that usually wins headlines and it didn’t even come from the horse’s (small) mouth, but was just tossed out as an aside during a mundane post-day press conference during New Zealand’s win against Pakistan in the second test at Hagley Oval.

It might have even grown in the retelling, as most small stories do, but it went like this.

Late on day three Pakistan were batting for a second time a massive 362 runs behind New Zealand who had just racked up an abacus-busting 659-6 declared.

There were 11 overs left in the day. That’s Southee and Boult time. Nobody is getting the ball out of their hands in that situation. Although cricket has moved on what from its selfish, look-after-your-own-game days, fast bowling is the one remaining A-type, territorial corner of the dressing room.

Southee and Boult are the kings of that corner. In the past it has taken time for them to warm to new members.

“[Wagner] didn’t quite gel straight away. It took time – he broke us down. We got to know him… Looking back, we made it harder for him than we needed to,” Southee once confessed.

“He’s such a good bastard; he’d do anything for you, off the field as well.”

Wagner doesn’t get the new ball though, no matter what a good bastard he is. Jamieson doesn’t either, no matter how spectacular his performances are. Yet there is Christchurch, after just three overs, Boult could see they had another Kookaburra ball that was refusing to swing so reportedly told Williamson to get the big fella Jamieson on for a couple before stumps.

Jamieson obliged and took a wicket. New Zealand won the following day, of course.

It’s a tiny yarn, a vignette, to which perhaps more meaning has been attached than is necessary. It was one of 202 wickets taken across this international season, after all.

But there’s something about it that speaks to a team that knows small sacrifices can lead to big things.

Much tougher tasks lie in wait.

International cricket has, by and large, skewed wildly towards home advantage. New Zealand, for reasons not worth repeating here, werefortunate to be able to host tours and play live sport in front of live crowds.

(Interestingly and probably not coincidentally, two of the three games they lost this summer were in empty stadiums when Auckland moved briefly back to Level 3 during the Australian series.)

England at home will be tough, particularly if the Indian Premier League affects the availability of some of the Black Caps’ best players.

Then there’s the WTC final on neutral ground against the best team in the world.

Falling short would hurt New Zealand. It might even cause some of us to reclassify this summer as something less than what it was.

That would be a mistake, an error and a miscalculation.

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