Four years ago, South Africa-born Grant Elliott took guard at Eden Park in Auckland wearing the silver fern of his adopted New Zealand in the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup. There were just two balls remaining of a semifinal that had already cemented its status as one of the best World Cup matches of all time.
Elliot had bludgeoned 79 off 72 balls against the nation of his birth. He tapped his bat a few times and steadied himself as he waited for the Proteas’ Dale Steyn, the greatest fast bowler of his generation.
Steyn charged towards the wicket and gathered pace as 45 000 people held their collective breath inside the stadium. The ball landed on a good length. Elliott went deep in his crease, swung his arms and heaved the ball over the legside boundary for a match-winning six as the crowd exploded in unison alongside Elliott, who raised his arms and drank in the adoration.
But Elliott did not lose himself. He composed his emotions as his eyes passed over Steyn, who was now lying flat on his back in the middle of the pitch, crestfallen and disbelieving. The South Africa-born Kiwi reached out a hand and consoled his adversary. Even in the greatest moment of his life, Elliott was able to cross the divide and connect with his opponent.
Five days later, Elliott was batting in the World Cup final and hitting the ball just as sweetly. This time he was facing an Australian side that a partisan Melbourne crowd had stirred into a frenzy. New Zealand were struggling, but Elliott reached 83 before Australian all-rounder James Faulkner’s slower ball fooled him into an early stroke that found the outside edge and nestled into wicketkeeper Brad Haddin’s gloves behind the stumps.
Rather than celebrate with his teammates, Haddin got up close and into Elliott’s face, ushering him back to the changing room with a volley of verbals. This was not the first time an Australian had behaved in such a manner, even though they had won this one-sided final comfortably by seven wickets with 101 balls to spare.
Australia wins the title, New Zealand wins the hearts
The Aussies’ antics soured their win. Cricket fans around the world celebrated an unprecedented fifth World Cup triumph for Australia but bemoaned the gloating arrogance that defined captain Michael Clarke’s team. New Zealand, on the other hand, were heralded as champions of the mythologised spirit of cricket.
But they lost. The 2015 Cricket World Cup was not a case of the plucky good guys overcoming the odds to set right all the wrongs of the world. Australia, the better-resourced bullies, trounced the spirited underdogs and rubbed their noses in the dirt for good measure.
What influence did the attitudes of the teams have on the result? Was there any substance to the argument that Australia’s mongrel elevated their performance and that New Zealand’s insistence on playing the game in a dignified manner held them back? For Elliott, the answer is simple.
“I actually think that if New Zealand tried to be more aggressive on the field then it would negatively impact how we play,” Elliott told New Frame. “Kiwis are naturally chilled out and don’t like to get riled up. We consider it a waste of our energy. The most important thing you can be on a cricket field is authentic.”
Elliott cut his teeth in Johannesburg’s hostile club cricket scene, representing Pirates in the city’s northwest. “It was pretty rough,” he says of the league largely filled with graduates from the surrounding elite, all-boys schools. “It was dog eat dog. It was hard stuff. Some of the language I heard as a youngster was quite shocking. But you learned to get on with it and inherited the culture from the older guys. You had to fight fire with fire.”
Elliott left South Africa as a 23-year-old in 2001 and settled in Wellington. He initially struggled with the change of culture as he had to unlearn an ingrained belligerence. “I needed to adapt,” he said. “There were less words said on the field than in South Africa. I had to humble myself a little and understand that there was a different way of doing things over here. There is an energy in New Zealand that sets itself apart from the energies found in South Africa or Australia.”
‘No dickheads allowed’ policy
The indigenous Maori people call this energy “mana”, which can also mean presence, prestige or respect. This guiding philosophy permeates all of New Zealand culture.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern regularly welcomes foreign dignitaries with the traditional Maori hongi greeting, where two people share one breath by pressing their noses together. The All Blacks rugby side, arguably the most dominant sports team on the planet, have a simple interpretation of this ethos with their “no dickheads allowed” policy in the camp.
For Iain O’Brien, a former Black Cap fastbowler who picked up 93 wickets for New Zealand across 36 Test, one-day international (ODI) and Twenty20 (T20) games, this emphasis on being a “good bloke”, as he puts it, is the result of the double tug of national confidence and insecurity.
“It speaks to our collective psyche,” said O’Brien. “We’re a small nation. We’re often excluded from maps of the world. We want to be liked and realise that tourism and our image is crucial. At the same time, we don’t feel the need to puff ourselves up. We’re comfortable being the little guys but also wish that we were taken more seriously.”
This contradicts with the approaches of other cricketing nations. South Africa and Australia play an overtly masculine brand of the sport and look to captains such as Graeme Smith and Steve Waugh, who are first unto the breach and drag others along with them. Under Virat Kohli’s muscular leadership, India are enjoying a prolonged spell of dominance. Even England, stereotypically tethered to the centuries-old ideals of empire and gentlemanly conduct, are awash with firebrand professionals such as Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow.
In a sea of deep grunts and flexed biceps, New Zealand stands firm with a gentle smile. But don’t let that fool you. “We may act like the nice guys, but that doesn’t mean we’re any less competitive,” said O’Brien.
“It doesn’t look ruthless, but it is. It doesn’t look competitive, but it is. It doesn’t have to be confrontational to be edgy. There is a mix-up when it comes to how visible you want to be with that stuff. People can question if you want it as much as the opposition but we prefer to let our actions do the talking. You prove your intent through the effort you put out.”
Can the nice guys finish first?
This rings true for Proteas fans, who watched as New Zealand efficiently dismantled South Africa in a World Cup for the fifth time in a row earlier this month. Kane Williamson’s unbeaten 106 and Colin de Grandhomme’s 60 off 47 balls was as remorseless as anything seen on a cricket field. Ditto for New Zealand’s dispatching of the West Indies a few days later, when Trent Boult held on to a difficult catch on the boundary to deny Carlos Brathwaite a fairy tale ending in Manchester.
“I would argue that remaining cool under pressure and still being able to put a smile on your face, even when things are crazy all around you, demonstrates more resilience and mongrel than losing your cool,” O’Brien explained. “People can look at the Kiwis on the field and think we’re the nice guys, but the easier thing would be to get emotional and lose yourself to wild antics. The fact that captains like Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson can uphold their integrity with the whole world watching with a World Cup on the line proves that they are anything but pushovers.”
And yet, a World Cup trophy remains elusive. That crushing defeat to their antipodean rivals four years ago is as close as New Zealand have come to reaching the summit of the cricket world. They are currently second, third and sixth on the men’s ICC Test, ODI and T20 rankings respectively. The women’s side is fourth and third on the ODI and T20 lists.
It is admirable that O’Brien and Elliott maintain the party line, but do fans at home feel the same way? Would a glistening addition to the coffers assuage any moral angst brought on by uncharacteristic bravado? Both Kiwis remain resolute.
“I think if you told Kane that he would win the World Cup by sledging more batsmen and being more aggressive, I believe he would turn it down,” said Elliott.
O’Brien concurred: “Some prices aren’t worth paying and the New Zealand public are proud of their team and how they are represented. I don’t think they’d accept a team that embarrassed them.”
The Black Caps have started this World Cup campaign on a high note, leading the pack after the halfway mark. They were unbeaten after six matches but have difficult encounters with Pakistan, Australia and England on the horizon. The players and coaching staff sporting the silver fern on their chests have shared jokes with the press and consoled their vanquished opponents.
But as the tournament reaches its climax and the pressure starts to mount, will Williamson and his team deviate from the script and bare their teeth as the prospect of a maiden World Cup materialises? Not likely. These Kiwis are determined to prove that good guys can finish first.