Auckland pin hopes on preparation
When Auckland failed to qualify for last year's Champions League T20 main draw, they were so downcast that a reporter who attended their press conference felt too bad to ask them anything. The journalist said she had never seen a team take defeat so seriously.
This time Auckland have done as much as they can to ensure they do not suffer a repeat of 2011 because they see their participation in the CLT20 as reflecting on the state of cricket in their country as a whole. "As a team, we are representing New Zealand domestic cricket out here and we have a responsibility to do well for the rest and showcase our strength as a nation," Gareth Hopkins, Auckland's captain said. "We're putting a lot more emphasis on preparation."
Auckland arrived in South Africa two weeks ago and have spent their days training at Pretoria's High Performance Centre, known as one of the world's top sporting facilities. Given that most of the players are coming out of a quiet period they saw the extra work as necessary to get themselves match ready. "We're coming out of winter, so we haven't played a game as a team in the last six months," Hopkins explained. "We've played some warm-up games now, more than we had done at the same stage last year."
They have also acquired the services of Zimbabwe bowling coach Heath Streak, who is working as a consultant for them and has an intimate knowledge of conditions in this part of the world. "Heath was always going to be a good fit for us. He speaks the local language," Paul Strang, Auckland's Zimbabwean coach who seemed to have forgotten that English is spoken in Africa, said.
Their trump card could be the inclusion of overseas players, Azhar Mahmood. Apart from experience, Mahmood will have inside information on some of the Sialkot Stallions, the Pakistan side who both Auckland and Hampshire admitted to knowing very little about. "We've seen three of four of the Sialkot players in the World T20 but the rest we're not too sure about," Hopkins said.
Auckland know Hampshire fairly well. They even share a player in Jimmy Adams who has played for both teams. But they begin their qualifying campaign against Sialkot on Tuesday and see the match as a must-win. They hope Mahmood will be a key figure in that fixture, not only because of his knowledge of the opposition.
"He's just a great guy. He fits into our team culture very easily and he brings a lot of knowledge about the game of cricket," Hopkins said. "He is more than happy to help our young players with techniques and with tactics of the game and he's not afraid to open up and share that with them."
Other experience will come from veteran bowler Chris Martin, who Hopkins also anticipates will make a major impact. "He is quite a calming influence on the unit and the bowlers. And being in South Africa with the bouncier and quicker wickets than what we had in India, his pace and bounce could come in handy. He is also good against left-handers and Hampshire have a fair few of them."
Auckland's intense focus is a result of what Hopkins called and "increased emphasis," on the 20-over competition at home, the HRV Cup, and they are confident it will pay off, in more ways than one. "A lot of teams back home are striving to win to get into the position that we are in right now," Hopkins said. "If we do well, players know they can get noticed by the national selectors or by an IPL team and then, who knows?"
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent