Not luck, not fluke - New Zealand deserve to be the World Test Champions

There is pride in being everyone's second favourite team. A sense of playing the game in a way that neutral fans enjoy. But there is also a bigger truth there. Everyone chooses their number two team for a specific reason. Still, when it's generally accepted that one side has that mantle, there are usually a few key reasons. They are seen as nice, safe and non-threatening. Even if they beat your main team, they won't rub it in much, and over time you think you'll still win more than them. Their victories are nice, their losses have honour, and it's easy to relegate them to the friend zone because they are beige.

In New Zealand's case, even more literally.

In 1930, New Zealand played their first-ever Test against England. At the exact same time in the Caribbean, the West Indies played a Test. Both teams were playing against England.

For the longest time, New Zealand was cricket's second team.

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According to the broadcast, New Zealand had a 27% chance of winning coming into the sixth and final day of this final. A chance, but not much more. But Kyle Jamieson changed that in a spell. Not even for the first time in this game, this man with the golden bowling average destroys the best batting line-up in the world.

Jamieson is a 26-year-old player, who started as a batter, before changing into a bowler. So he had a late start by New Zealand standards into the international team. Yet he has embarrassed teams in his first eight Tests. He looks too good to be true. A tall, smart swing bowler who can hit sixes as well. A choose-your-own-cricketer kind of player.

For generations, New Zealand allrounders were a bit like that quote on Bob Cunis, neither one thing nor the other. Jamieson is not like that.

It's not that he's the best cricketer that they have produced. This is the country of Richard Hadlee. But as exceptional as Hadlee was, his raw talent came from New Zealand. A lot of the honing of it came from county cricket. Jamieson is 100% New Zealand Cricket.

The natural talent with him is obvious, but Jamieson is a product of the New Zealand system. It took coaching to turn this young batter into a fast-bowling phenom. That perfect wrist had to be trained into him by skilled coaches. And it took a professional system to keep him around when he could have disappeared into everyday working life when he didn't crack the national team early on.

For the first time, New Zealand had a system worthy of the players they had always produced. Jamieson is a combination of hard work on and off the field.

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There is a story I found when John R. Reid died. It was written on some long-forgotten cricket forum or blog, and it was about Reid's preparation for a tour to England when he was captain of New Zealand.

Reid worked at a service station, and to warm-up before the tour, he asked for volunteers to come down and bowl to him in the local nets. One of those was a young boy, around 12, who tried his hardest to help Reid. The pitch they had on offer was concrete. Reid was going up against the great England cricketers in an era they dominated, with kids bowling to him on a concrete wicket.

There is amateur, there is graft, but New Zealand weren't playing the same sport as England at that point.

And this amateur part haunted their cricket for a long time. Like when in 2002 their domestic cricketers went on strike, except it's not really a strike if you don't have a job. You saw that when the T20 era almost split their team in half. And you could see that in the 1970s when Glenn Turner left.

Turner was a fierce professional playing for a happily amateur nation, and it would never last. He turned himself into an incredible player in county cricket and then would come back to the amateur world of New Zealand. And in 1977, Turner resigned as captain. He was 30, clearly in his prime as a batter, and he dominated county cricket.

In total, Turner would make 103 first-class hundreds, seven for New Zealand. In all, he played in 41 Tests over a 14-year career.

We focus on New Zealand's small population a lot, but we don't factor in how many players they have lost along the journey.

Stewie Dempster played in 10 Tests for them, and he averaged over 65.

To find a player as good as Dempster for a new Test team is incredible luck. But soon he was recruited by Sir Julien Cahn, an eccentric millionaire. The latter hired fantastic cricketers for his own personal cricket team, that he played in. Dempster moved to England, and when not playing for Cahn, he would have a stunning career for Leicestershire, scoring over 10,000 first-class runs. Less than 1000 were for his nation.

If Dempster wasn't the best New Zealand cricketer at that point, it was Clarrie Grimmett. The New Zealand born and bred legspinner took 216 wickets for Australia, many of which occurred after New Zealand were promoted to Test status.

And it continued. Jack Cowie was an extraordinary bowler who New Zealand unleashed on an England tour in 1937, where he took 114 first-class wickets at an average of 20. He toured England again in 1949, and in total, he played seven Tests there. In his entire career, he played nine matches, as the war ate his best years up. In those nine Tests, he averaged 21.53. His first-class record was 359 wickets at 22.28.

On that 1949 tour with Cowie was Martin Donnelly. Like Cowie, he made his debut in 1937 and played his last Test in 1949. He averaged 53 on those two tours of England in the Tests. And that was his career average, as he never played another Test. In 131 first-class matches, he averaged 47.

Of the first four great Test players they produced, not one played more than ten matches combined, they totalled 26 Tests.

And not having those players around really shows in the win column. That first Test was 1930 and their first win was 1956 when they beat West Indies in Auckland. Of their first 80 Tests, they won three. They lost twenty by an innings.

Only one innings defeat was to Australia, in 1946. They didn't make 100 runs in the match; they did not consider it a Test at the time, and Australia did not play New Zealand again for 10,136 days.

In 1955, New Zealand went into the third innings 46 runs behind England. England won the match by an innings and 20 runs.

This is what John R. Reid once said: "I told a lot of lies. We'd gather as a team, and naturally, I'd try to be as positive as possible... I'd try to encourage our fellows, to explain that everyone is human, that they all got nervous, had failures. But in the back of your mind there was this knowledge that, all things being equal, we were in for a rough time."

One thing was true of early New Zealand cricket, they lost their best players, and they lost.

And yet, through the losses, something always shone through.

There was a miniseries made in 2011 in New Zealand that heavily featured cricket called 'Tangiwai'. It's about how a train disaster clashed with a Test versus South Africa.

In the disaster, 151 people lost their lives, including Nerissa Love, whose fiancee Bob Blair was in Johannesburg during the middle of a Test match. On one side of the world, New Zealanders were in hospitals because of the crash, on the other side, they had as many batters in hospital as the middle because Neil Adcock kept hitting them.

Bert Sutcliffe left the ground to get medical treatment himself and, after losing consciousness twice, he made his way back to the ground to fight on for New Zealand.

The image of Sutcliffe going back out to bat at Ellis Park looks more like a war photo than a cricket one. His head is covered in a bandage. There is a huge lump on the back of his neck. According to Richard Boock's 'The Last Everyday Hero' "[captain Geoff] Rabone and a couple of first-aid men raced into the middle to readjust the Kiwi's bandages, which had been weeping blood during the exchanges. They eventually decided to tape a white towel around his head."

Had Sutcliffe been struck again, it's possible he might have died. But instead, he struck back at South Africa. Taking on Adcock, destroying Hugh Tayfield and he took them past the follow on with a six. When the ninth wicket fell, Sutcliffe was left alone, and he and the South Africans started walking off the ground. No one believed New Zealand's No. 11 would walk out.

Let's be clear, neither man should've been out there. The pitch was dangerous; one clearly had a concussion, the other couldn't have been focusing correctly. But they did bat on, putting together 33 runs.

New Zealand would end up 84 runs behind on the first innings, and they would lose by 132 runs. And yet here we are, still talking about it.

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There will be a long queue of people lining up to say this win doesn't count. New Zealand barely play away from home. The final is in conditions that suit them. Had Covid not hit, they may not have qualified. Australia lost points for a slow over rate. The World Test Championship helps teams who play short series. India is a better team. They can't beat Australia. South African players keep turning up to strengthen them. And then this final, they had a consequence-less two-Test series in English conditions to prepare. England even helpfully had three of their front-liners out.

This couldn't have been much different from their 1949 tour, where their batting was so weak, they almost chose an inexperienced player from Fiji, IL Bula, to strengthen their team. And their entire plan on that tour was to draw all four Tests, so they could prove to England that they were worth five-day Tests. They achieved their goal, and here we are.

So if this championship felt lucky, flukey, or things went their way, then no team has ever deserved that more. They fought against better teams, professionals, and dynasties for generations, all while they were trying to survive as a cricket nation. They took 26 years to win a Test, and 39 to win a series. They had all the bad luck already.

And outside a win in Kenya for a tournament we now know as the Champions Trophy, New Zealand's greatest success was losing and then tying and losing two successive World Cup finals. In the 1980s they were a fantastic team, there were just others who were better.

There has always been someone else winning; there has always been someone bigger. That is just the world they live in.

But look at who they had in the middle at the end, New Zealand's greatest batter, Kane Williamson. There are a lot of cricket cultures in the world, but Williamson couldn't have come from any place; his lineage is evident in all the intelligent calm leaders before him. A product of the professional environment, he is homegrown, homemade, and unquestionably great.

And some of what I've been talking about will sound like ancient history. For many of you, New Zealand is just another team. But they aren't, and they have never been. And facing that final ball was living proof. Ross Taylor made his first-class debut in the 2002-03 Plunkett Shield season. That was the year New Zealand domestic players went on strike. Taylor began his career as an amateur.

Like Stewie Dempster, Hedley Howarth, Jeremy Coney, John Wright, Nathan Astle, Bob Cunis, Blair Pocock, Richard Collinge, Bert Sutcliffe, Chris Harris, The Hadlees, The Redmonds, and the Crowes. All of them. And because of what they achieved in so many losses, honourable draws and then incredible wins, players like Tim Southee, BJ Watling and Tom Latham could be in a World Test Final. This wasn't a win of a single team; this was a win for a cricket culture that took generations to build.

Like Taylor, this team went from amateur to professional, 26 years for a Test win, 39 years for a series victory, and 91 years to be champions.

New Zealand aren't amateurs anymore; they're professionals. They might still be cricket's second favourite team, but now they're something more, number one.