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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on January 9, 2012, 10:05 GMT

    when the black caps got on the plane home from beating aussies they were given a standing ovation, there is a massive cricket fanbase however thay have been put off by a string of poor performances on the park and lack or a hadlee or cairns. has anyone seen the crowds they got in the mid 80s and around 2005? it was always jam-packed and there was a genuine interest. i will go to the test against SA in march knowing we will roundly thumped and probably embarrassed. there is a culture of only seeing sports teams that are winning, the football team in the aussie league gets 5000 people per week but at the semifinal, they got 30000!

  • testli5504537 on January 9, 2012, 9:52 GMT

    i am extremely thankful that chris cairns chose cricket over rugby because he made the new zealand u-18 team. i am an incredibly passionate new zealand fan and have always dreamed i could live in a time where we had a truely world class player ala cairns or hadlee (im only 14.) there is so much hype over young players with lots of talent that when there talent is unfulfilled the new zealand cricket fan is hurt a little hurt a little more. there is so much hype over whether wagner, taylor, williamson, bracewell, and southee can become greats but chances tey won't and the void left in the heart of the fan will grow ever larger as they continue to stay at the bottom of the world rankings. i want more then just performing in world cups. i want greatness. but i won't get it.

  • testli5504537 on January 3, 2012, 7:08 GMT

    i am a pakistani and we have more than a fair share of greats in players like javed miandad, imran khan, waseem akram, waqar younus and the list goes on. but i have always liked the BC's cause they play like a team which in the end matters the most. thats what makes then BC's a great team rather than any BC being a great player. no doubt Richard Hadlee was a great cricketer but he never got all 20 wickets in a test or all ten in a one day, there was always someone at the other end picking up what was left. go BC's !!!!

  • testli5504537 on January 3, 2012, 6:23 GMT

    The Main issue with NZ cricket is that they cannot play outside NZ conditions and NZ conditions as a whole doesn't allow anyone to make massive hundreds. They only perform in Aussie because conditions are similar. They fail misserably in sub continent and other parts of the world. What NZ should do is prepare wickets to resemble other countries and get their players to adjust their style of approach. Then they will perform as others.

  • testli5504537 on January 3, 2012, 5:27 GMT

    Nice article, although I feel you have missed some points.

    B Mccullum deserves to be among the best keeper-batsmen in the world,you haven't mentioned him anywhere.

    I'd also rate D Vettori highly , among allrounders ,he has stood up everytime NZ top order has failed, also strikes at right times with his bowling.

    Reason I feel NZ havent performed consistently are- 1) Lack of sufficient international cricket being played. 2) Poor 1st class cricket pitches. I think NZ has tremendous potential and I hope they do well in coming years.

  • testli5504537 on January 3, 2012, 4:58 GMT

    chris martin and danny morrison are the best batters ive seen ...they should open

  • testli5504537 on January 3, 2012, 1:13 GMT

    as an aussie id say hadlee doesnt even get enough kudos for how good he was. this website put an all time test XI up last year and i couldnt believe he was overlooked for kepil dev??? i guess population counts in some fronts? i think crowe deserves to be called great. i remember him pounding us at the gabba in the 80's the same time hadlee was making us look like we didnt know which end to hold the bat with. crowe played in bowler friendly conditions more often than not and in a time when pakistan and the west indies attacks had more great bowlers in it than the entire world can put together at curret. avg of 45 in that eras as good as a 50 for me.

  • testli5504537 on January 2, 2012, 23:59 GMT

    I think that it is unfair to state that Bond was unfilled without adding that several of his prime years were stolen from him, not from injury but because of the weakness of NZC to stand up to India. If NZ had him during this period he would more than likely have taken over 100 wickets and being part of the national set up may well have had access to better fitness coaches which may have extended his career.

    Also regarding Grimmett, if NZ was an international team when he started his career he may well have remained in NZ, however they were not and he had to travel to demonstrate his genius, making his international debut five years before NZ managed to do so. He should be considered as much an NZ great as Tony Wilding is in the tennis arena.

  • testli5504537 on January 2, 2012, 15:21 GMT

    Vettori may be best judged at the end of his career. If he plays test cricket for another four years his batting average could well rise to nearly 40.

  • testli5504537 on January 2, 2012, 15:20 GMT

    But - why is Nathan Astle discounted. In my opinion, he WAS one of the best cricketers to have ever played for NewZealand!

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