Can New Zealand win on Sunday, and will they? They seem to be the only two questions anyone is asking right now, from the tip of the North Island to the foot of the South Island. Yes, Brendon McCullum’s men can win, but as to whether they will, that is absolutely in the balance with the odds favouring Australia – but only just.
That is not some Kiwi self-deprecation on my part, but rather an acknowledgement that Michael Clarke’s side has a slight advantage because they know the conditions better than the Black Caps. That stands to reason, of course. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is a home venue for them, after all, and although a drop-in pitch nullifies that advantage to a degree, it means the Australians will still have a command of things as subtle as the effect of the wind or the angles of the playing arena.
That might not seem like much but in a match-up where small one per-centers could be the difference between winning and losing, it could make all the difference. Any merchants of doom out there will also point out that only seven of the current squad – Brendon McCullum, Grant Elliott, Martin Guptill, Kyle Mills, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori – have played a One-Day International there before and that, together with the size of the occasion and a partisan crowd, could have the potential to produce some stage fright among the players. But, from my perspective, I believe that is unlikely.
I think the way the team has gone about this campaign, right back to a visit to Melbourne at the start of the summer to ensure some degree of familiarity with the arena, shows a great internal belief and confidence and I do not believe that will alter in this match. Instead, rather than being daunted or overawed, I expect this New Zealand side to be excited at the prospect of creating history and to rise to the occasion because, as they have shown numerous times not only in this tournament but also in the past 18 months or so, the bigger the challenge, the more determined they have become.
As to whether New Zealand’s win against Australia at Eden Park in late February will count for anything or have any psychological effect on this match, I do not think it will. It is obviously a nice memory for the Black Caps players to have but the venue and the occasion will be totally different on Sunday and what has gone before counts for nothing. In some ways it might actually work in Australia’s favour because if they were in any way complacent about facing New Zealand before that match then the defeat at Eden Park would have removed any of those thoughts from their minds.
They now know they will be in a full-blooded contest from ball one and that will ensure they are absolutely ready to hit the ground running. And that is just as well because I believe the tone for the occasion will be set by the start of the two innings. On the one hand it will be McCullum against Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, and on the other it will be David Warner and Aaron Finch against Trent Boult and Tim Southee.
Whichever team comes through those particular arm-wrestles will be ahead in the match, perhaps never to be caught, and so there will be high-octane action right from ball one, something we have come to expect at this World Cup. The good thing from a New Zealand perspective is that the MCG’s big boundaries will provide plenty of scope for Daniel Vettori to show his full range of skills, and his ability with the ball means that, in one area at least, the Black Caps are clearly ahead of their rivals. This is not the first major final New Zealand have reached, of course.
We actually won the ICC Champions Trophy in Kenya in 2000 when I was captain – it was known as the ICC Knock-Out back then – and in 2009 the side finished as runners-up to Ricky Ponting’s Australia when that event was held in South Africa. But with due respect to those achievements, this is something on an entirely different scale. You could compare it to the Rugby World Cup, a prize that eluded New Zealand for more than two decades before it was secured on home soil in 2011, but the feeling within the country seems completely different from four years ago.
Back then, there was little else except nervousness because there was a huge degree of expectation on the All Blacks. By contrast, the successes of the cricket team in 2015 has brought with it a feeling of near-euphoria and excitement among the public at large. The catchphrase of a major advertising campaign around the tournament has been “Dream Big” and that is exactly what the country and the team are doing right now.
Down the years, New Zealand have always been an unfashionable side but I do not think it will enter the minds of the players to see victory on Sunday as a way of scoring points or proof they deserve a higher profile among the elite teams. Instead I think they will be focusing on enjoying themselves in the knowledge they are part of something that will, most likely, be the best experience of their professional lives. And with Australia having home advantage and the backing of the majority of the 90-odd thousand fans at the venue they can go out and play with the freedom that has been the hallmark of their success in this tournament.
It is great for the two co-hosts to be coming together in this way and in that sense it is the perfect end to what has been a fantastic World Cup. Win or lose, New Zealand’s players have done their country proud but they will want to make sure they leave nothing in the dressing room because the chance to play in a World Cup final is as special as it gets. And if, come Sunday night, Brendon McCullum is lifting that trophy above his head, it will get a whole lot more special for every one of them.