New Zealand cricket December 30, 2011

Who is New Zealand's best after Hadlee?

By Keith King, South Korea

By Keith King, South Korea

New Zealand is such a small country (many cities have more people than New Zealand’s four million-odd inhabitants) that, in many ways, is insignificant on the world stage. Sport is one avenue through which New Zealand and New Zealanders have asserted themselves on the world stage. For a country its size, New Zealand has done remarkably well in many sporting codes, including rugby and rugby league, netball and softball.

For those that would argue (with some justification) that these are mere fringe sports in a global sense, New Zealanders have won both tennis and golf majors, made the semi-finals of the basketball World Championships and made the soccer World Cup finals twice (admittedly, they haven’t won a game yet once they have reached them). At the Summer Olympics, New Zealand has won 86 medals (which surprisingly enough is four times the number India, a country with a much greater population, has managed to win).

Arguably, though, the one sport at which New Zealanders are not as competitive as they should be, despite taking it seriously, is cricket. Since New Zealand’s introduction to Test cricket in 1930, the New Zealand team (they weren’t known as the Black Caps until much later) has usually been at the bottom or near the bottom of the heap, the worst team going round. It took 26 years and 45 tests for New Zealand to register their first Test win. Australia wouldn’t even play their neighbours for a 27-year gap between 1946 and 1973, which must be rated as the ultimate cricketing cold shoulder.

New Zealand has a win/loss ratio of 0.47, the lowest of all test teams barring Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (India has the next lowest win/loss ratio of 0.77, showing that it has not always been the powerhouse it is now). A brief respite was found with the introduction of Sri Lanka to Test cricket (the whipping boys of the 80s and early 90s) and then a more permanent one with the introduction of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, who now seem to be the only teams New Zealand can reliably beat in test matches.

New Zealand, of course, has had famous victories, including the one in Hobart over Australia recently, where Doug Bracewell played his second match-winning hand in three Tests. Tests matches are often won on the strength of one innings or one spell, and great players obviously come up with match-turning moments more often than average ones. This led to the observation that New Zealand’s lack of success may be due to the fact that there has been a lack of great players, the type of player that can single-handedly change a match.

The Australian team of the early 2000s could claim five or six greats, playing together at the same time. By contrast, only two New Zealanders would push for consideration in an all time World XI. One of them, Clarrie Grimmett, didn’t even play for New Zealand, instead leaving New Zealand as a largely unrecognised and unheralded youngster who eventually made his name in the baggy green of Australia, becoming the first player to take more than 200 Test wickets. It would be a stretch to claim Grimmett, the great Australian leg-spinner, for New Zealand.

The other great, of course, is Richard Hadlee, who stands head and shoulders above any of his countrymen. He is a true cricketing great. When Hadlee was at his peak, in the 1980s until his retirement in 1990, New Zealand actually won more games than they lost. He was New Zealand’s greatest match-winner.

Hadlee spearheaded a solid bowling line-up, that was described somewhat harshly but with some justification by Graham Gooch thus: it was like facing the “World XI at one end, and Ilford Second XI at the other”. Do any other New Zealanders aside from Hadlee (counting Grimmett as a New Zealander, while true, would be disingenuous in the extreme) qualify as greats?

In an attempt to arrive at an answer, first of all, I started with the time honoured equations: a great batsman averages 50.00 or more, a great bowler under 25.00. No batsmen from New Zealand who has played 20 or more matches has averaged more than 50.00. Martin Crowe has the highest average of 45.00, and for a decade (1985-1994), he was considered one of the world’s premier batsmen (he averaged almost 54.00 during this period, the highest for any batsmen who played more than 20 tests in this era).

Supporters of Crowe would argue that he was a great batsman and anyone who saw him bat during the 1991-92 World Cup would be likely to agree. Crowe had all the shots (or at least all the shots of that era), possessed a classical technique, was adept off both the front and back foot and was a deep thinker of the game. He was hampered both at the start and at the end of his career – at the start by being rushed into the New Zealand set-up before he was ready (a common occurrence in a country where true talent is so rare) and at the end by a crumbling body that he tried unsuccessfully to push past.

Crowe is without doubt New Zealand’s best ever batsmen and as such may be the only New Zealand batsman to be genuinely described as great. There’s been several very good batsmen, like Glenn Turner, Martin Donnelly, Stewie Dempster, Bert Sutcliffe and Stephen Fleming. Turner is probably the next best, averaging 44 in Tests and the owner of 100 first-class centuries. However, a lot of his finest work was done at the first-class level and he missed six years of international cricket at the peak of his powers after clashes with administration (ironically, given his hard-nosed approach to player management during his stints as the coach of the national side).

Bert Sutcliffe was a majestic player and played in a weak New Zealand team (he was never on the winning side in 42 Tests) but his average of 40.00 qualifies him only as a New Zealand great, not a great of the game. Fleming was a special player, hindered by a poor ratio of converting 50s into 100s, whose average of 40.00 ultimately meant he underperformed at the Test level. Dempster (15 innings) and Donnelly (12 innings) didn’t play enough Test cricket to be regarded greats, although both had formidable first-class records.

On the bowling front, only three New Zealand bowlers average lesser than 25.00, Hadlee being one of them. The other two are potential greats who both had question marks beside their names, due mainly to their longevity.

The first is Shane Bond, New Zealand’s best quick bowler since Hadlee, a bowler good enough to have the third-best strike-rate of all bowlers (50 wickets minimum) in Tests – he got a wicket every 38 balls – and, by the same criterion, the fifth-best strike-rate of all time in ODIs. He was on the winning side 10 out of his 18 matches, an astonishing strike-rate for a New Zealand player and a statistic that probably shows his value to the team. Unfortunately, injuries tarnished his legacy and his career probably falls into the category of unfulfilled, rather than great.

The other bowler is Jack Cowie, whose career was interrupted by the World War II, a player who only played nine Tests but played them outstandingly well (45 wickets with a strike-rate of 45.00 and an average of just under 22.00). He was praised, at that time, as an outstanding bowler, and in the words of Wisden “had he been an Australian, he might have been termed a wonder of the age”.

There are of course allrounders to consider. Allrounders have a special place in New Zealand cricket’s history. Being a cricketing country that shows fight, one more dependent on grit more than ability, New Zealand have often had players who can bat and bowl, reliant on them to do the jobs that other countries would leave to specialists. Apart from Hadlee, three allrounders come to mind: John Reid, Daniel Vettori and Chris Cairns.

Reid, who played from the mid-40s to the mid-60s, was a giant of the New Zealand game but his average in both batting and bowling of 33-odd shows someone who was competent at both skills but a true great at neither. Vettori is someone similar; he has shouldered New Zealand’s bowling attack for more than a decade and has done well with the bat. However, one feels that he while he dominates the game in New Zealand, he is not a true great of the international game.

Cairns overcame the folk hero legacy of his father and was, for a time, the world’s premier allrounder – one capable of shredding attacks and also capable of bowling wicket-taking balls on a regular basis (his strike-rate was an outstanding 53.00). His talent was so obvious that, at times, it felt like he had underachieved. His stats (batting average 33.00, bowling average 29.00) suggest otherwise and are comparable to Kapil Dev (batting average 31.00, bowling average 29.00) or even Ian Botham (batting average 33.00, bowling average 28.00), and are better than Andrew Flintoff’s (batting average 31.00, bowling average 32.00). Cairns has a valid claim to be one of the game’s great allrounders. What possibly counts against him is a failure to have an outstanding series against Australia, the dominant team of his era, à la Flintoff in the 2005 Ashes.

This started as an exercise to try and show that New Zealand has produced more than one great player. Martin Crowe is a probable, Cowie and Bond are both would-have-beens and Cairns is, maybe, under-appreciated. An obvious question would be why has New Zealand only produced one unquestionably great player in 80 years of test cricket?

Do all the best athletes in Zealand play rugby, leaving the scraps of the sporting gene pool for cricket? Is it because of the temperamental nature of our climate, the poor pitches that have blighted the first-class game (thankfully, this has improved over the past decade). Is it just representative of our small population base? Is it lower expectations?

In New Zealand cricket, the equation for greatness would seem to be a batting average higher than 40.00 and for bowling, an average of 30.00 and below – much less demanding numbers than the standard in other countries. Whatever it is, there’s still the hope that a Williamson, a Taylor or a Bracewell can swell the ranks of genuinely great New Zealand players.

Nikita Bastian is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo