After reaching their first ever World Cup final, the world's smallest, top cricketing nation now wants to go all the way. But, in the final on Sunday against Australia, New Zealand will have their work cut out for them.
Many records have been broken in this year's ICC Cricket World Cup as batsmen have had their fun Down Under. But the innings of Martin Guptill a week ago - an almost faultless 237 not out - will remain the highlight for the billions of fans who follow the world’s second most popular sport.
The innings was not only the largest individual score in World Cup history, it was also symbolic of the dominance of the New Zealand team at the moment, as they surge from one win to the next.
This week on Tuesday, it was lesser-known New Zealand batsman Grant Elliot who made the difference though. Although it was no record, his was a top performance under pressure. With five runs to win off two balls remaining in his team’s semifinal against South Africa, Elliot smashed a six out of Eden Park that took his team to victory and sent the crowd absolutely bananas.
Now, the Blackcaps face their old rivals Australia this Sunday at the MCG in the World Cup final. And, for the first time in a while, the four-time World Cup winners will be wary of their smaller Trans-Tasman rivals.
NZ’s rapid rise
Having lost two and won two in the World T20 tournament last year, the Blackcaps headed home after just the group stages from the sport's short format world championship. Since then though, under the captaincy of swashbuckling batsman Brendon McCullum, New Zealand have been resurgent. The team has only lost six of their last 27 One-Day International's (ODIs), and have a 100 percent record in the World Cup so far.
Ahead of the big final, the Australia-NZ rivalry, which is traditionally strongest in sports like rugby and sailing, has flared up amongst the cricketers too.
"We're probably seen as the 'little brothers from across the ditch' and we do quite well in other sports to compete," said New Zealand bowler Tim Southee on the eve of the match.
"As a kid growing up it was always Australia that you wanted to play against. You always want to have one-up over the 'big brothers,'" Southee said.
Australia tough to beat
Despite New Zealand’s defeat of Australia in the group stage in a thrilling low-scoring encounter, the Aussies will go into the final on Sunday as slight favorites. Since that match, the Australians have themselves been unstoppable, with captain Michael Clarke saying that the loss against New Zealand was a “turning point” for his team.
The MCG is the largest cricket stadium in the world
“Our attitude from that day has been exceptional,” Clarke said after his team’s win against India. “It gave us a kick up the backside.”
Against their knockout opponents, India and Pakistan, Australia’s fast bowling and late innings hitting was particularly strong and they will look to rely on that again in the final. The fact that they have also seemingly found a consistent number three batsman, Steve Smith, has also helped stabilize the team.
For Australian cricket, it’s been a huge turnaround since the highly-publicized death of national team player Phillip Hughes' during a game earlier in the season.
"We've come from the depths of depression, I suppose, from where we were in November," Cricket Australia boss James Sutherland told the Australian Associated Press on Friday. "It was a very difficult time and every credit to the players and the way that they've responded and gotten on with their job, without in any way forgetting their grief.”
While Hughes’ death will no doubt serve as an extra motivation for the Australians come Sunday, the most telling advantage could be that the final will be held at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground. Over 100,000 mostly Aussie fans are expected to be on hand for what cricket fans around the world see as the most important match of the year.