WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand are looming as the popular dark horses for the cricket World Cup with Brendon McCullum's side eager to shake off the 'nearly but not quite' tag.
The co-hosts have often punched above their weight at the global showpiece with the sum of all parts proving to be stronger than the teams that have gone into the tournament with one or two world beaters.
New Zealand have made the semi-finals six times in 10 editions but never made it to a final, falling to Sri Lanka in the last two tournaments.
However, they beat Angelo Mathews' side, albeit without the dangerous fast bowler Lasith Malinga, 4-2 in a recent series which should stand them in good stead if they meet again in the knockout stages after they face off in the opening game.
It was the second series victory over a team ranked higher than them at home in the past 12 months, having beaten India 4-0 last year, and follows their come-from-behind series win over Pakistan in UAE last December.
Such is their progress in the past two years under captain McCullum and coach Mike Hesson several pundits have installed them as third favourites behind four-times champions Australia and South Africa, who thrashed them in a series in New Zealand last October.
"New Zealand are certainly a team to look out for in this tournament," former South Africa captain Graeme Smith told the Cricinfo website in late January.
"A very exciting team and I think a team that other teams will say, 'jeez, I don't really want to come up against them in a knockout game'."
The side's attacking batting lineup has been settled for a number of years with Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor and captain McCullum to provide the bulk of the runs with Kane Williamson expected to be the glue that holds the innings together, while South African-born Grant Elliott will bat at five.
The 35-year-old, a surprise inclusion in the squad after not featuring for 14 months, is a calm head and has a strong batting record at home, where he averages 46.37, compared to his career average of 32.62.
Wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi who scored 170 not out from 99 balls against Sri Lanka last month, has been tipped as the man to guide the tail home.
Former captain Daniel Vettori, who is still one of the world's most economical bowlers in limited overs cricket, is expected to tie up one end while Tim Southee, Kyle Mills, Trent Boult, Mitchell McClenaghan and fast bowler Adam Milne attack at the other end.
Editing by Patrick Johnston