New Zealand cricket December 7, 2011

Daniel Vettori, lower-order saviour

From Keith King, South Korea

From Keith King, South Korea

Another Test, and another disappointment for that long-suffering breed, the New Zealand cricket fan. New Zealand cricket has never been a powerhouse but currently, the team is ranked eighth out of 10 teams, with only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe below them. They had just beaten Zimbabwe in a Test, but only just.

Australia are far from the team they were five years ago, when the team list read like the roll-call of all-time greats. Now they are seen as vulnerable and the possibility of New Zealand beating Australia in a Test for the first time since 1993 had been written up in the New Zealand press, with even ex-players expressing that the game was New Zealand's to win. Such hyperbole ignored the fact that much like the All Blacks, there is never a bad Australian cricket team. Some just aren't as good as others.

It also ignored the fact that the New Zealand seam attack consisting of Chris Martin, Tim Southee and Doug Bracewell, while probably the best New Zealand has to offer, is still well short of being world class. Martin, the aging but seemingly tireless spearhead averaged over 70 in Tests against Australia; Southee, while highly promising, still averaged over 40 in Tests and Bracewell had only played in one, the one in Zimbabwe that the New Zealanders only just won. True, Daniel Vettori is a classy spin bowler but not the sort of bowler to run through Australia in Australia.

Much of the optimism stemmed from the fact that in Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder, New Zealand have an in-form top five that potentially could be world class, potentially the best that New Zealand has ever had. Of course, games aren’t played on potential or on paper and the now traditional collapse of the New Zealand top order losing 5-96 (repeated to worse effect in the second innings with 5-28) was followed by the traditional lower-order recovery.

It almost goes without saying that the recovery in this first innings was led by Daniel Vettori, former captain and selector of the team and its No. 1 allrounder. In short, Daniel Vettori is New Zealand cricket. But is he New Zealand’s best batsmen, a statement that is almost always made on ESPNcricinfo by commenters and fans whenever he comes out to bat, usually in a precarious position where his country needs some saving. Daniel Vettori with the weight of a country and batting order on his shoulders.

Vettori is an unlikely batting hero. Bespectacled and gangly, he has an unlikely presence at the crease. It's not a presence that would suggest permanence that must frustrate the opposition. But he has admirable qualities of concentration, of being able to rise to the occasion when it is needed (and it's needed frequently). He bats within his means, using a home-baked technique that plays to his strengths. He plays late with little footwork, finding gaps in the field by placing the ball in unusual areas. He is especially strong square on the off-side and is effective at taking balls off his hip for well-placed runs on the on-side.

Obviously, if you just take his average which hovers just above 30, he is some way from being the country’s best batsman. However, he is a candidate for the world’s most improved batsman. If you only look at his average from 2003, the year where he made his first Test century until now, he averages 40 runs per innings with six centuries (before 2003, his average was 16.25 with no centuries).

The batting numbers of New Zealand players in the time period between 2003 and 2011 reveals a few interesting facts. Vettori is the highest run-getter in the period, and has the fifth best average during this time (15 Tests minimum), outperforming the likes of Brendon McCullum.

Of course, it goes without saying that he has been our most valuable all-round player. He has played the role of both main attacking and main defensive bowler, often bowling himself into the ground. Martin is the only other player to have captured over 100 wickets in this period. Shane Bond was perhaps the only New Zealand bowler who was more important to the team than Vettori, but unfortunately Bond only managed to play 10 Tests in this period due to chronic injury concerns.

Several players including McCullum, a player of rare talent but questionable shot selection, have a lower batting average than Vettori. This would suggest that McCullum, for one has definitely underperformed as a Test player. So why doesn’t Vettori bat higher in the order, given that he is one of New Zealand’s best batsmen?

He does seemingly have an unflappable character, capable of performing in situations under high pressure. Despite his ability and his results, there has been a reluctance to push him higher up the order, a reluctance shared by selectors, fans and presumably by Vettori himself. After all, over the last eight years (64 Tests), Vettori has averaged more than what Hussain, Atherton, Hooper, Atapattu, Wright, Kapil Dev, Ranatunga and Botham did over their whole careers.

There still remains the feeling that he doesn’t belong in the top six of an international team. When he has batted in the top six, his average is about 30 (this figure will be skewed from times when he batted as a night watchman in the earlier part of his career). In contrast, he averages about 40 at No. 8 (he is in fact the most successful No. 8 batsman in the history of Test cricket). For the time being, Vettori will continue to serve as New Zealand’s lower order savior, trying to remedy the flaws inherent in the talented but inconsistent New Zealand top-order.