Auckland: Black Caps skipper Stephen Fleming is convinced he knows why New Zealand has never got beyond the semi-finals of the World Cup. Injuries to key players at vital times, says the captain, have prevented the Kiwis from doing better than their four semi-final appearances in the seven tournaments held so far. "We haven't got the resources to cope when we lose players. What we need to do is develop new players very quickly but that will take some time," said Fleming who has been in charge of the team for four years, becoming his country's most successful skipper in the process.
So when New Zealand set about tackling Group 'B' rivals South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Kenya, Bangladesh and Canada for one of three qualifying places for the Super Sixes second stage this time around, it knows its chances will depend as much on the skill of its physio as on its players' own ability out on the pitch. New Zealand, semi-finalists in 1975, 1979, 1992 and 1999, is in the weaker group of the two in South Africa but Fleming, despite having masterminded a crushing series win over India in January, knows that high hopes depend on frail talents.
The most susceptible could be Chris Cairns, widely regarded as one of the greatest all-rounders in the world with a record of 3663 runs and 115 wickets in 154 One- dayers. He made a belated return to the Black Caps against India but was unable to bowl preferring to keep his suspect knees protected for the World Cup challenge ahead. Policeman Shane Bond, tipped to be one of the stars of the tournament and boasting 32 wickets in 18 Internationals, has suffered from a stress fracture of the foot while spinner Daniel Vettori, a potential match-winner with 82 wickets, has been dogged by a bad back and has been in and out of the side.
"The World Cup is a high pressure environment and we have chosen some players, despite their recent lack of form, who we believe have the class and experience to step up," said chairman of selectors Richard Hadlee. "We have put a lot of pressure on the players and the players have put a lot of pressure on themselves but pressure is all about accepting challenges." Veteran all-rounder Chris Harris has also been recalled to the squad looking to pass two landmarks - in 219 matches, the 32-year-old has 3,956 runs and 193 wickets.
The Kiwis lost to Pakistan in the semi-final in England in 1999 where their lack of a cutting edge seamer was highlighted when Wajatullah Wasti and Saeed Anwar put on an opening stand of 194 as their side easily chased 242 to win reaching the target for the loss of just one wicket. New Zealand was quarter-finalists on the sub-continent in 1996 but had been semi- finalists on home soil in 1992 when it bamboozled opponents by using off spinner Dipak Patel as an opening bowler. In the semi-final, Martin Crowe hit 91 off 83 balls as the home side made 268 but, once again, Pakistan was victorious thanks mainly to the efforts of Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul-Haq.
The Kiwis had lost easily to the West Indies in their first semi-final in 1975 but, four years later, they came the closest they have ever been to the final. England made just 221 but the Kiwis collapsed losing four early wickets to lbw and a nervous run-out as they surrendered the match by just 10 runs. When it opens its 2003 campaign against Sri Lanka in Bloemfontein on February 10, Fleming will be hoping that this time his country can go one better - injuries permitting.