World Cup predictions: Will the unfamiliar pressure get to New Zealand?
For a team that has perpetually carried the dark horse tag, this World Cup will be unique to New Zealand. The tag is perfectly congruent with their World Cup history, with an impressive – some may say dubious – record of being in the semi-final stage six times since the first World Cup in 1975. Traditionally, two things have been certain for New Zealand before a World Cup – the dark horse tag and modest expectations.
For all their money, they will agree neither of those exist going into this World Cup. They have been globally acknowledged as frontrunners this time, a mantle that must be paraded to the liking of the home crowd. Whether that is used as an advantage will determine New Zealand's fate.
What they have going for them
Brendon McCullum is one of the better captains going around at the moment. As a player, McCullum's game has always hinged on seizing little moments by using his full supply of aggression. His captaincy isn't any different. In the last 12 months, it has become characteristic of the Kiwis to play forward-thinking cricket. This has been a massive factor in making them an overnight danger, despite having relatively inexperienced players.
McCullum is a captain who is capable of extracting the best skills out of his players and constantly making sure he controls the flow of the game – crucially avoiding the inverse – which is often the difference between teams who are good and teams who win the World Cup.
Another important thing to consider is that New Zealand has a fully fit squad, which is second only to Australia in terms of form going into the tournament. History will reveal that some of the best teams in sport were built on consistency, familiarity and camaraderie. The Kiwis have that in abundance, with the core group fully intact, and the addition of old warhorses Daniel Vettori and Kyle Mills.
New Zealand have proven match winners in McCullum, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor. However, they have another important aspect to their chances this time, which is their pace attack. Arguably, it is the best pace attack in their group, which will be a significant advantage on any pitch in this tournament. Trent Boult, Mitchell McCleneghan, and Adam Milne are quick by all standards but can still provide different skills in combination with Time Southee and Kyle Mills.
Small New Zealand grounds and tired Australian pitches will be features of this World Cup and it'll take a good bowling line-up for a team to go far. New Zealand certainly look well-equipped on that front. New Zealand also possess some deadly finishers, exhibited in no uncertain terms recently by Luke Ronchi, and the returning veteran Grant Elliott. And Corey Anderson needs no introduction. It's a lower-middle order that comes second, again, only to Australia.
There appears to be only one tactical worry for The Kiwis. Martin Guptill's form has been indifferent recently and this means there is a big question mark about who will open the innings with McCullum. Tom Latham is the other option but has little to show in his short career as a limited-overs player. In all likelihood, Guptill will remain the first choice and they'll hope for things to turn around quickly for him.
That aside, New Zealand look a good team and the only real obstacle for them will be the pressure, and it will take several forms in this World Cup. Playing at home is a prospect that is riddled with many factors that have little do with cricket, but can be so damaging.
There will be pressure from the supporters, who haven't known their side to be favourites in 39 years of World Cup cricket. Although it works in your favour to be backed by a multitude, it will be daunting to a largely inexperienced side. And then there are sponsorship obligations to carry out, or even the distraction of family. It won't be difficult for New Zealand to lose focus, and therein lies their biggest test.
There is no fuss about the group stage. The format means few minnow teams can even be considered seriously. I expect New Zealand to finish second or third in Group A. This means a potential face-off with either India or Pakistan in the quarter-finals.
Against the popular view, I do not think New Zealand will get past the quarter-finals. Their recent form will suggest otherwise, but one must consider the difference between a dead-rubber match in a bilateral series and the occasion that a World Cup knockout game is. New Zealand have done well in previous World Cups because little was expected of them, but it is improbable that they can pull off a traditional 'exceeds expectations' performance this time – the expectations might just be too much for this young squad.
Having said that, if The Kiwis can hold their nerve in the quarter-finals, they could end up with at least a runners-up trophy come the end of March.