A fortress no more
The night before the third one-day international at Auckland, I told a colleague of mine in the UK that the expected slow wicket at Eden Park gave New Zealand a decent winning chance. "Why don't you make all your pitches like that?" he asked. Despite New Zealand's loss today, it's a fair question.
Rewind to the World Cup in the summer of 1992 when the names Greatbatch, Harris, Larsen and Crowe dominated match scorecards and became Kiwi legends. New Zealand racked up six successive wins in the pool stage, starting with the scalp of the defending champions Australia.
Standing out like a lighthouse at Cape Horn was the offspinner Dipak Patel, New Zealand's most unlikely and unexpected opening bowler. While his new-ball partners changed in virtually every game, New Zealand's success was in no small way due to Patel's ability to restrict runs in the first 15 overs. On slow tracks, the secret was not so much in deviation but in a lack of pace and clever field placements. It is unthinkable now that New Zealand's new-ball duo in one match, against England, was Patel and the slow-medium bowler Chris Harris.
If Bridgetown's Kensington Oval was a fortress for the Caribbean quicks of the 1970s and 80s, Eden Park became the impenetrable battlefield of the lack-of-pace New Zealand attack in the World Cup. Batsmen of the calibre of Desmond Haynes, Imran Khan and Brian Lara found the wicket devilishly hard to score on and, in the 13 years since, little has changed. Australia's 264 today was only the sixth time a total of over 260 had been achieved at Eden Park.
Although New Zealand went into today's match with just three frontline medium-fast bowlers, the question could be asked whether even that was too many. While Glenn McGrath was resting in the grandstand on his day off, Daryl Tuffey probably wished he had the same luxury after his new-ball effort went horribly wrong. Each of his first six deliveries were either no balls or wides en route to a 14-ball over first up and it came as no surprise that he was not seen at the crease again after conceding 25 runs from his opening two overs. At the other end Kyle Mills was removed after just four overs.
In recent times New Zealand has struggled to take wickets or restrict runs inside the first 15 overs against Australia. Even back in the glory days of the 2002 VB Series when New Zealand won three from four, twice Australia got off to flyers - 95 for 2 in Melbourne and 70 for 2 in Sydney - before collapsing. Ditto the Chappell-Hadlee matches before Christmas - 95 for 1 and 101 for 1 - and the current series - 74 for 1, 96 for 1 and 81 for 1. Even the taming of Adam Gilchrist has not stopped the rot.
The first 15 overs with the ball has become a battle for survival for New Zealand. Tuffey and Mills have been unable to find the swing which they are selected for and simply don't have the pace to trouble Australia's top order. Tuffey struggled with even the most basic of disciplines today, bowling straight.
Perhaps then it is time to revert to the model devised by Martin Crowe and Warren Lees in '92. And why aren't all New Zealand's pitches in this series Eden Park replicas? What would Stephen Fleming and John Bracewell do for the RPOs of 3.10, 3.44, and 3.81 achieved by Patel, Gavin Larsen and Willie Watson respectively? New Zealand showed today that they were no worse off using the lesser pace of Nathan Astle and Craig McMillan in the final ten overs.
As a departing thought, is it best to bowl Daniel Vettori out with 15 overs remaining as happened today? Sure he's turned in outstanding economical spells in this series but is that the best use of Fleming's primary weapon? Crowe thought so in his column in the Sunday News last week when he compared Vettori to Larsen. However, with New Zealand's death-bowlers so ineffective of late, there must be a decent case for Vettori being held back as Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh did so successfully with Shane Warne.
Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show.