Jon Coates (The Scotsman)
POPULATION of a few million on an arable, skinny land mass, protective of their identity under the shadow of a bigger neighbour, infatuated with sport. Ring any bells? Jacob Oram believes New Zealand and Scotland have much in common, especially when it comes to underdog spirit, which doesn't bode well for their first clash on a cricket field in nine years this week.
Mannofield, Aberdeen is the venue for a three-nation one-day series in which Ireland are the third party, and the team they call the Black Caps will take as kindly to barbs about sheep as they will to suggestions they are here for an end-of-season swally. If Scotland want this scalp they will have to earn every last follicle.
Ever since the four-time World Cup semi-finalists shook the emerging nation tag off their own backs, they have never lost to one of the breed and Oram, the biggest physical presence in international cricket and one of the better all-rounders, won't let any of his compatriots loosen that hard-earned tag.
"A good test is what we are expecting," Oram said from the team bus in London in between memorable fisticuffs with England. "Teams like Scotland and Ireland don't get the opportunities to play the top sides around the world very often like we do, so I know that when they get the opportunity they are going to make the most of it.
"You know, we almost have a little bit of the same thing: we are perennial underdogs, a small nation with a small population, and we sure know how to fight above our weight. We're expecting the same thing from them.
"The games are extremely important. We're not coming to Scotland for a warm-down from the tour here. We haven't been as successful in England as we would have liked. The Tests were highly disappointing and we still have a chance to win the one-day series [they are 2-1 up going into this morning's denoument at Lord's], but we have worked hard and we don't to waste two-and-a-half months of hard work with complacent performances up in Scotland. We'll be playing our best side I am sure and playing hard, as we always do."
Daniel Vettori's men flew to the north-east today, train at the world's most northerly ODI venue tomorrow and face the Irish raiders – a far weaker assembly than the team that took the breath away at last year's World Cup - on Tuesday. Then it will be Union Street for the final breaths of a UK summer before Thursday's tussle with the Scots and the 30-hour odyssey home.
In one way Oram, having just returned from injury, will be reluctant to see this tour end but he has been on the road since early April, having played in the genesis of the Indian Premier League. Part of the reason New Zealand have capitulated to England in Test series, both home and away, this year is cricket's equivalent of the "player drain" that has brought the great All Blacks back towards the chasing pack.
Oram, a likeable giant from Manawatu – he is 6ft 6in tall, weighs more than 16 stone and played in goal for New Zealand under-age sides alongside Ryan Nelsen before plumping for cricket - has so far been able to board the gravy train of Twenty20 while remaining true to his dear love for the Silver Fern. But others have traded in their nationality to profit from the IPL's rebel rival, the Indian Cricket League.
"I think it's just the nature of cricket and people need to accept it," says Oram. "There has been a door opened up for a massive amount of revenue in India and at the end of the day, cricket is a sport and an entertainment and it's about playing for your country, but it's also guys' jobs, and you get a certain point in your life with your wife and kids when you are perhaps looking after No 1."
Under such shackles it's remarkable that the Kiwis have kept their 50-over reputation intact, but here's why. From Sir Richard Hadlee through Chris Cairns to Oram, Vettori, Brendon McCullum and Scott Styris, all-rounders seem to emerge from the ground like hot vapour. Tim Southee, a rookie at 19 who has taken on England with serene aggression since flaying them for nine sixes in Napier, looks like a chip off the old block.
"We've almost hung our hat on that for 20-30 years, producing players who can do a bit of both," says Oram. "Tim is already a very good bowler and it's exciting for us because we don't have massive depth in New Zealand, with the number of players who have either retired or become rebels with the ICL. It's very pleasing to have a young guy coming through who is going to be pretty dominant."
The Kiwis, who have a 6-2 record over England in 50-over matters this year, should be dominant at Mannofield. A giant-killing by the Celts is an outside possibility but not a reasonable demand, so it's pleasing that the presence of crack performers stands as a back-up consolation to make attendance at the Grampian ground a no-brainer.