Is Vettori New Zealand's best Test bowler?
There seem to be certain truisms that are always in articles about New Zealand cricket; the consistent inconsistency, the overachieving in World Cups (four semi-finals reached in the last six one-day World Cups, a record matched by only Australia and Sri Lanka). And then, there seems to be the clichés; the Black Caps a team of battlers, a team of overachievers (given the talent and potential of some New Zealand players, I would say that many of them underachieve) and that Daniel Vettori is the best bowler in the team.
Undoubtedly, Vettori is one of New Zealand's key players, a rare world-class player in a team that lacks real class. He was/is one of the few that could have made an Australian team (until Australia's decline, a way I had of deciding if a New Zealand player was world-class was thinking if they could make a combined New Zealand-Australian team).
The pity is that Australia's decline has coincided with a time where New Zealand's fortunes have taken a further dip, reached new lows. But while extremely valuable, is Vettori really our best Test bowler? He has carried that label for most of his career, with only Bond, Cairns and maybe Martin at times, challengers for the title. Vettori acts as both attacking weapon and stock bowler, often having to perform both roles simultaneously given that the New Zealand attack has often been mediocre.
As a bowler in the short forms of the game, his credentials are unquestionable. His change in pace, length and drift as well as a well-disguised arm ball make him a parsimonious and dangerous bowler in the shorter formats of the game.
In Tests, it's a different story. Without the need to try and attack him, the subtleties that are so effective in the one-day game prove less effective in Tests. Some days, like during the first Test against West Indies when he picked up one wicket in 51 overs, Vettori seems to bowl all day without getting a wicket. Unfortunately, these days, it seems that every day is one of those days.
To illustrate the point, he's captured five wickets in his last five Tests, averaging over 80 per wicket. Are these the stats of New Zealand's premier bowler? So is the old line about Vettori being New Zealand's best bowler still justified? Does his all-round contributions mask his lack of impact at the bowling crease?
Of course, it goes without saying that Vettori has been our best spin bowler since his debut. Only two other spinners, Paul Wiseman and Jeetan Patel, have taken 40 wickets or more since 1997, the year Vettori debuted. However, they both averaged more than 45 runs per wicket with strike-rates and economy-rates significantly higher than Vettori's. But when you look at the 11 bowlers who have taken more than 50 wickets for New Zealand since Vettori's debut and when you see that only Wiseman has a worse average and only Oram and Wiseman have a higher strike rate than Vettori, does it reflect the fact that Vettori has been New Zealand's best bowler? Certainly, he has the most wickets of any bowler in this period (359, significantly more than Chris Martin who has 229) and has the second-best economy-rate of the 11, only slightly more expensive than Oram.
But, the primary job of a Test bowler is to take wickets and for a spinner, to take wickets in the third and fourth innings. Vettori falls down in this category, averaging almost 37 (in comparison, Warne averaged 22.8 and Murali averaged 21).
Looking at the stats, you have to wonder why Vettori is so highly regarded? There are several arguments that can be made to rehabilitate Vettori's aura. He plays for a weak team that seldom score enough runs to pressure the opposition, he has usually lacked support from either fast or spin bowlers, (he didn't have slow-bowling support like Kumble had with Harbhajan and discounting the few games he played with Shane Bond, a quality fast bowler like Warne had with McGrath or Gillespie). It can be argued that the flat, batsmen friendly pitches and smaller boundaries of today's arenas don't help spinners of Vettori's ilk.
It can even be argued that his style of bowling is not well suited to New Zealand pitches (where he has played about half his Tests). It is perhaps this point that is most important as his record is much better away than it is at home (highlighting this point is that he has taken 14 of his 20 five-wicket bags away from home). Away from home, his average drops to 32.9; in comparison Chris Martin's rises to 38.7, compared to about 31 at home.
Maybe, it would be better to describe Vettori as New Zealand's best bowler outside of New Zealand. Regardless of these stats, Vettori as a spinner seems to be irreplaceable in the New Zealand Test team. Injured and invalidated out of the ongoing Test in Jamaica, on a pitch that could be expected to take spin, the team management opted not to replace him with Tarun Nethula, their second spinner in the tour party but went with a four-prong pace attack with Williamson and Guptill offering part-time spin.
Incidentally, this is the same approach the New Zealanders took in Hobart when Vettori pulled out on the morning of the match but then they had little choice. This time, they didn't have enough faith in Tarun Nethula to do a job. It must be discouraging for Nethula, although England did the same by leaving Graeme Swann, a world-class spinner, out of their side in Headingley.
Going with four seamers is an attacking option that looks good if sides get rolled cheaply (obviously) but can look one-dimensional and lacking in ideas if a couple of batsmen get set. While Vettori may not be New Zealand's best bowler, he seems to be the most indispensable, the bowler that can be relied on to pull back quick starts made by opposing batsmen, the bowler who can keep New Zealand in the game for that little bit longer. It's just that the days when Vettori wins a match by bowling a team out seem to be getting further and further apart.