Is it time to wake up and pour the coffee yet? Are the final stages finally upon us? It has been quite a wait, no one can deny that, but we might finally get to see The Dethronement. After years and years of failed hopes and shattered dreams, we might get to see someone wipe that smug smile off McGrath’s, Ponting’s, Hayden’s, and co.’s face and leave them with an awkward blip on the tail of their record.
It’s obvious that if any of the three teams left want to have a chance to win it all, they will eventually have to get through Australia, so it's important to define their chances based on their ability to hurt Australia. To beat the Dark Force, it usually requires a full effort from the entire squad, with a certain number of necessary components and qualities:
The Money -- As in, "you are so money and you don't even know it!" In other words, The Cream. The match-winners. And we're not setting the bar low for this -- we're talking "century in a final after you team collapses to 50 for 4" or "hat-trick against the run of play" . Only a select few players can raise their game to top levels in a deciding game, and at least one is needed if a team is to have any chance against Australia.
Ponting 0 [run-out <........>] -- Pretty self-explanatory. Who in the team can pluck the Spiderman catch, or induce the direct-hit that can change the complexion of a tight game? Who can end Ponting's innings before it starts?
Rattle n' Hum -- The Australians are used to dominating at all times, both on the field and in the other players' minds. If you can find a way to strike back and get under their skins somehow, rattle them, some of their players can lose focus easily and become vulnerable (see: McGrath, Glenn).
Killer-to-Filler Quotient -- In other words, how many players are there just for padding? They do not present a real threat to anyone; they are just there because there is no one else better in their country, and the rules say you need 11 players taking the field.
Mental As Anything -- Some teams have deep overriding issues hanging over them at all times -- inferiority issues, complex collective mentalities, "Choker" tags. These are often far more dangerous to a team than, say, a weak middle order, or lack of bowling power at the death.
After Chris Cairns' lumberjack body one day decided to just collapse into oblivion, this category has really hurt New Zealand. It's not that the talent is missing, it's that the talent has been unavailable 80% of the time. In fact, I'm surprised no one has pointed out the insane streak of good luck that has hit the Kiwis during this World Cup. How often have Bond, Styris and Oram (their three big stats-getter of the tournament) played together in the past 4 years?
Beyond that trio, however, there is not much meat in the lineup. Fleming is a committed, organised but ultimately quite pedestrian batsman. Vettori is treated with respect by most opponents, including the Australians, but it's hard to overlook the fact that, for all his intelligence, accuracy and variations in flight and speed, he's still a spinner who doesn't spin the ball.
Ponting 0 [run-out <........>]
Vincent's early withdrawal created a void in the fielding department. His replacement, Hamish Marshall, is athletic and busy and looks the part, but he hasn't passed 30 with the bat in about a year and a half, so I doubt he'll even get to play. There are some decent, safe catchers in the squad, but no one to stop the singles through his mere presence (a la Jonty, Symonds).
Rattle n' Hum
Fleming seems intellectually capable of rattling small-minded simpletons like Graeme Smith, but I doubt the Aussies will still lose too much sleep over him. New Zealand do have a history of troubling Australia on the field, but "troubling" does not necessarily equate with "beating". Take away the recent 3-0 drubbing, sans Gilchrist and Ponting, in the series prior the World Cup, and I'm sure their record against Australia is equally as poor as any other team's.
Naturally, there is an innate Trans-Tasman antagonism on which to feed here, as well is as collective subconscious acknowledgment -- from both sides -- of that undeniable low-point in the history of sport and competitive ethics, i.e. the Chappell underarm incident. (To this day, I'm amased either of the brothers can even show their faces in public without getting beaten by street mobs. They must be at the very bottom rung of the karmic ladder at the moment, slightly below most parasitic invertebrates.)
Wow, you want Filler? Where to start? Try "half the batting line-up". I haven't really followed it as closely as I should have, but the New Zealand top/middle order seems to be a saloon-revolving-door for nondescript, faceless right-handed batters (e.g. How, Cumming, Fulton -- could anyone identify these cats from a police line-up?). The kind of guys whose eventual claim to fame will probably be something like getting Sachin Tendulkar out once, during a 3-day Tour match, with their part-time spin.
Craig McMillan has plenty of experience to draw from, but he has seen too many down periods and has been bounced back and forth without concern for a long time, so it's hard to say what he can contribute on the day. James Franklin is an opening bowler who is in the team for his batting, and Jeetan Patel can at least say he got to a free trip to the Caribbean for his part-time work.
Mental As Anything
Their overall psychological baggage is surprisingly light. For a bottom-feeding little island with no great cricket success in its history, New Zealand seem devoid of any of the deep national scars or pathological big-game yips that some more successful Test countries have. Their problem is, and has always been, simple: they just don't have the depth. Not to go all the way in the tournament.
They're spoilers, the Kiwis -- they can topple more talented teams with grit and discipline and make it to the final stages, but they rarely have enough weapons to carry them through. Not against McGrath and the Ponting Generation. Not this time.