ANY GIVEN MONDAY
New Zealand this week begins a three-test series against Australia with an unusual sense of hope and expectation.
Part of the reason for that is the impressive resume of results they have put together in recent years, culminating in a surprisingly processional test series victory against England this season. The other is the captain, Kane Williamson.
•Dylan Cleaver: The Black Caps' problem that might not have a solution
• Dylan Cleaver: This is the end of the All Blacks' dominance and the start of a new rivalry
• Dylan Cleaver: Nine observations from the ninth World Cup
• Dylan Cleaver: What happens to our game when the All Blacks are no longer the best in the world
Williamson is New Zealand's best batsman, certainly today, most probably ever. You could spend a lifetime working out a formula that would more accurately analyse the competitive merits of players across different eras, but the simple fact is no New Zealand batsman has scored runs as consistently across a long period of time as Williamson.
It's not the simple joys of his batting that makes me half-believe they can upset the natural order of things and win a series in Australia for the first time in more than 30 years.
He's going to have to score runs, sure, but it is the sheer pragmatism of his captaincy that is New Zealand's biggest weapon heading into the first test at Perth this week.
It was always going to be intriguing to see how Williamson followed in the size 10s of Brendon McCullum, and the most surprising element is that he really hasn't.
McCullum will be remembered as one of the most important figures in New Zealand cricket history. His outsized personality and gambler's instinct was almost single-handedly responsible for dragging a moribund programme up by its bootstraps.
In turn he became something of a cricketing romantic as he literally chased lost causes into the boundary hoardings and chose the cavalier option over caution nine times out of 10. He was exactly what the Black Caps needed at the time, but the team was still prone to periods of spottiness that reflected their leader, none more so than in his last series as captain when they folded too easily against a middling Australian team.
Williamson is not conservative but nor is he guided by hunches. He always bows to the head before the heart.
When the world wanted Lockie Ferguson unleashed to fight Jofra Archer's fire with fire, Williamson decided he had a better chance winning with Tim Southee and then Matt Henry.
It's not like Williamson doesn't care what you want; it's more like he sees no need to seek your opinion.
McCullum's New Zealand might not have had the wherewithal to win the England series on such lifeless wickets (on a tangent, while the criticism of the surfaces might have been over the top, it was nonetheless valid).
When BJ Watling and Mitchell Santner were in the middle stages of their 261-run partnership at Mt Maunganui, it looked like they had suffocated the match into submission. Infact they were just playing to instruction: bat once and bat big.
Where McCullum never minded keeping the opposition in the game if it decreased the chances of a bore-draw, Williamson had zero qualms about taking an England victory off the table early.
Likewise, in Hamilton, he never took chances trying to advance the game. It was England's job to chase the series, not his. Not once, you suspect, did the thought that it was a pretty shabby spectacle come into his head.
Instead, job done, have a quick rest, fly to Australia.
It's Williamson's ability to see the floor lighting to safety more clearly than others that gives hope that this series will be as competitive as everybody wishes for, but Australia still have to start favourites.
For a start it's Australia in Australia and unlike 1985, this is not a weak team despite their relatively low ranking. New Zealand might have passel of excellent seamers, but most global cricket followers would take a Cummins-Starc-Hazlewood-Lyon attack over Southee-Boult-Wagner-De Grandhomme-Santner (you can add your own small variations depending on injury or conditions).
New Zealand's batting might be as strong and deep as it has ever been, but in Steve Smith and David Warner, you have two of the most prolific home test players who have ever scratched out a guard in the middle.
The treams appear even enough but that first test still feels like an ambush.
Playing a pink-ball, day-night test in conditions that are likely to suit quick bowlers is a tough assignment. It's even tougher when your opponent has warmed up for it by playing a pink-ball test in Adelaide while you've been battling it out for five days with a red Kookaburra in conditions unkindly described as a "slag heap".
Williamson, you fear, will have to be at his most stubborn at the crease and his most pragmatic in the field for New Zealand to move on to Melbourne unharmed.
Gary Neville: there're two words to send a shiver down the spine of any Liverpool fan, whether casual or committed.
There was something about Neville that was impossible to like unless you belonged to the red half of Manchester (which usually resided in London, Singapore or Belfast rather than actual Manchester). Whether it was the pencil moustache or the way he needed Roy Keane to hold his hand in the tunnel against Arsenal, the elder Neville always cut an unsympathetic figure.
Yet he has somehow evolved into the type of pundit every decent sport deserves. His football opinions are unvarnished yet based on both a deep love of the game and actual research, while he's also not afraid to talk sense about social issues.
There remains a large chunk of the populace that believes sport should separate itself from society, as if it sits like a splendid island of isolation. In the past, these were represented here as your classic pro-Tour proponents – the "keep politics out of rugby brigade".
Nowadays this profoundly stupid concept is more commonly manifested in the "shut up and dribble" mob who believe athletes are not qualified to talk about anything outside their field of expertise.
Sometimes athletes and pundits fuel this cynicism with some strikingly silly utterances but when they get it right the power of their platform adds weight to the words. That should be encouraged.
So when you have a brilliant Manchester derby marred by louts racially abusing players you want more than just the normal cries of Kick It Out and the reactionary calls for lifetime bans for offenders.
You want somebody who has been in football his whole life, who has lived in the UK for the vast majority of his life, to wrap some context around the issue.
It wasn't the most polished stump speech of Neville's life, but he stepped up where others won't.
"You are watching the Prime Minister's debate last night where he is talking about migration to this country, and people having to have certain levels.
"It fuels it all the time. It has got worse over the last few years in this country and not just in football."
You can certainly argue that it takes a long bow to blame Boris Johnson for an idiot in the stands making monkey chants and gestures at a black player.
Neville is absolutely to bang on the money though to highlight the fact that political rhetoric in some of the world's largest western democracies has skewed more and more to anti-immigration and nativist principles in the past few years.
That simply lays the groundwork for the sort of toxic racism the world saw at Etihad Stadium to flourish.
Johnson might not have been the devil sitting on that man's shoulder making him commit such a deplorable act, but those far-right, anti-immigration, England-for-the-English ideals are.
At the very least, Neville was spot on for pointing out, in a none-too-subtle way, that sport can never be separated from politics.
THE MONDAY LONG READ ...
Call it conceitedness or end-of-year ennui, but during the last couple of Any Given Mondays I'm going to highlight some of the stories I most enjoyed writing in 2019 that you might have missed. But first, here's an extraordinary yet understated story and photo-essay by the New York Times on champion Paralympian Marieke Vervoort who chose to die under doctor-assisted euthanasia this year.
Pat Vincent was a two-test All Black and part-time crooner. Scratch a little below the surface and you find an extraordinary, complicated life.
In 2018, I went to Boston to meet with some of the world's top CTE experts, something that has remained topical with last week's opening of a sports brain bank in Auckland. This piece outlined the sad truth that science often takes a back seat to money and petty side-taking, especially in such an emotionally charged environment as sport.