Every four years, New Zealand is in the grip of a sporting fever. Rugby union is the passion that bonds: the World Cup is the prize and a nation not only expects, it demands to the depths of its soul.
But something strange has happened in the past few weeks. As summer begins to turn to autumn, as the rugby players strut their stuff in readiness to defend their title in England later this year, cricket has taken a hold as perhaps never before.
This country is consumed by the 11th World Cup. It has taken it to its heart, it is determined to make the most of an opportunity which puts a little country at the other end of the earth at the centre of the cricketing world as well as the rugby one. This innocent determination, allied to a more pragmatic recognition that it can exploit Asian markets for the purposes of tourism, has been propelled by the widespread conviction that their team can win the thing.
New Zealand have a squad whose every move is being watched for signs of strength or weakness and a captain in Brendon McCullum who is revered. The minutiae of form are being dissected, the true worth of their estimable bowlers constantly assessed, the form of the late middle order fretted about. New Zealand have prepared almost perfectly in every way for this.
It has been a magnificent host, friendly, welcoming, glad to have it in town. In small places like Nelson and Napier, they know they may never see the like of it again and have embraced it with affection and warmth. For Christchurch, it presented a chance, eagerly seized upon, to show the world that a place devastated by an earthquake four years ago, which was almost immediately forgotten about outside New Zealand, is being reborn.
And the team… well the team have shown what true planning can do. They have demonstrated the art of peaking for a particular competition so well that they won all six matches of the pool stage.
The only trouble with this is that people now really do expect something huge. Perhaps it is different from the sense of divine right which accompanies the rugby team, the belief that they should always win. This instead is the realisation that these perennial semi-finalists at World Cups, which still in a way makes them overachievers, will never have a more realistic opportunity of greatness.
There can be no mistakes now. New Zealand meet West Indies in the quarter-final tomorrow at a ground, known affectionately as the Cake Tin, where they have lost seven out of 22 matches. Their bowlers, their vaunted bowlers, have traditionally held sway and nothing can change that now. Or can it?
The trouble with sport is that when people get caught up in it the way that New Zealanders have with cricket, they worry in a way they did not before. Before, cricket was the summer game and it was jolly nice to win occasionally, especially against the Aussies and the Poms. But that was about it. Now, it is personal.
Take Ross Taylor, for instance. Taylor has been the cultured rock of New Zealand’s middle order for the best part of a decade. He averages above 40 in both Tests and one-day internationals and at 31 he should be at the height of his powers.
But something is not quite right with Taylor. It may be a throwback to the imbroglio which resulted from his clumsy removal as New Zealand captain two years ago. Relationships within the team have never fully recovered, as marriage may suffer when one of the partners is unfaithful.
It may be the demands of this competition. He came into it in good order, with a fifty, a ninety and a hundred in three of his last four innings before it. But there has been something missing here, a solidity, a lucidity about his batting. There is a fretfulness at the crease. The entire country is talking about it. The 56 he scored in his last outing, from 97 balls, only heightened the concern because of its absence of rhythm.
So, yesterday, it was necessary for his middle-order colleague Grant Elliott to address the issue of Taylor. It was as if he was reassuring a country.
“The middle order really hasn’t had a go,” said Elliott. “We had a good go in the Sri Lanka and Pakistan series but the bowlers have been exceptional and we haven’t had to chase too many.
“I think Ross has been in really good form. The last game, he played an innings, yeah he faced a lot of balls but he played an innings that got us ready for the quarter-finals. The way he is striking the ball in the nets, he has been striking it fairly sweetly. He is a world-class player and he is someone to be feared in the coming rounds.”
These are probably the sort of bland, supportive comments a colleague would make, particularly if he were worried. Then there is Tim Southee. A national hero when he dismantled England a fortnight ago by taking 7 for 33, the pace bowler has taken two wickets in three matches since. “What’s wrong with our Timmy?” is the cry. Probably nothing that a swinging ball will not rectify but the burden of anticipation begins to weigh heavily on the locals.
In theory, West Indies should be dealt with comfortably. If New Zealand were an object lesson to hapless England in how to build for a World Cup – they sacked Taylor but at least it gave his successor McCullum time and space – West Indies were all over the place.
It has shown in their fitful displays, sometimes on their game, mostly off if, without a clear idea of what they are doing and another betrayal of their heritage.
It is always possible that one of West Indies’ big hitters will bake to perfection in the Cake Tin but they need to. New Zealand’s biggest difficulty may be trying to avoid worrying yet about a semi-final against South Africa. That and a nation expecting.
New Zealand v West Indies
Tomorrow, 1am GMT, Wellington, Westpac Stadium
Sky Sports 2
Weather Warm and sunny. Maximum temperature: 19C
Umpires RA Kettleborough (Eng) & BNJ Oxenford (Aus)
New Zealand (probable) M J Guptill, B B McCullum (capt), K S Williamson, L R P L Taylor, G D Elliott, C J Anderson, L Ronchi (wk), D L Vettori, T G Southee, T A Boult, M J McClenaghan
West Indies opener Chris Gayle is set to play despite a recurring back problem as the team look to shrug off inconsistent form. An opening defeat to Ireland was followed by wins against Pakistan and Zimbabwe, then heavy defeats to South Africa and India before a nervy win over UAE.
West Indies (probable) D R Smith, C H Gayle, M N Samuels, J L Carter, A D Russell, D Ramdin (wk), L M P Simmons, D J G Sammy, J O Holder (capt), K A J Roach, J E Taylor.