Wielding the selection power
At the start of last season I suggested on this site that John Bracewell's reign as New Zealand coach bore parallels with that of John Mitchell, the coach of the All Black side that failed to live up to his own hype at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Tenuous as the link may have been then - I was referring to Bracewell's Mitchell-like disregard for media in Bangladesh - the comparison now is becoming more apparent with each team selected.
Back in December, New Zealand chased down a then world-record score to beat Australia in a one-day international thanks in no small part to Scott Styris' blinding 101 off 96 balls. His reward was a demotion in the batting order for the next match. And the reason: to give someone else a go ahead of next year's World Cup. The New Zealand selectors are so obsessed with "building" depth for that tournament that team selection for Test cricket seems to be inconsequential at present.
I mention Styris here because the New Zealand Herald stated this week that Bracewell had indicated it is Styris who faces the selectorial axe from the side for the first Test in South Africa on April 15 to allow the fit-again Jacob Oram to assume the No.6 batting position that Styris occupied in Zimbabwe in August and against the West Indies at home this month.
With a Test average of 43.56, Oram is the rightful custodian of the No.6 berth as it means New Zealand can field either two spinners with Oram as the third seamer or three specialist quick bowlers can be chosen with Oram providing back up, but for his inclusion to be at the expense of Styris would be truly bizarre. Make no mistake, had Styris not saved New Zealand in the first Test at Auckland with a sublime 103*, the series with the West Indies would have been an unforgivable 1-1 draw rather than 2-0 to New Zealand.
What this goes to show is the irreverence to Test cricket on our shores these days. While we build for the World Cup, developing a strategy aimed at making New Zealand a worthy Test opponent - and one that gets invited to play in lucrative series in India at that - appears at worst to be not happening at all and at best an after-thought.
Take the opening position for example. Since Bracewell assumed the dual role of coach and chief selector, New Zealand has played 22 Tests. In that period the most capped openers, outside of the now-retired Mark Richardson, have been Craig Cumming and James Marshall with five Tests each and, although they both toured Zimbabwe just one series back, neither is in the running to open now. In total, Bracewell has used nine openers in those 22 Tests.
The combination for the just-completed West Indies series included a new cap in Jamie How and a first-time opener in Hamish Marshall. In addition, Peter Fulton was debutant at No.3 and his half century at Wellington was the only significant score the trio could muster. Thus, the mind boggles to think it is Styris, with five centuries and an average over 40 in his 24 Tests, who could be the one on drinks duty.
It should never have been this way. If Oram was a certainty to come back in at No.6, then Styris should have filled his more natural position at No. 4, with Stephen Fleming moving back to first drop, the spot he's held more often than not over his 99-match career. That way the top-order would have had a more experienced look to it and Fulton, or even the out-of-favour Lou Vincent, could have filled in for Oram. Better still, Fleming could have opened in place of Marshall, for he has had a track record and some success there.
Reading between the lines, Bracewell is adopting a similar approach to selection as Mitchell did. First, just as Mitchell argued vehemently that a "panel" selected each team when in reality the other selectors were merely puppets, Bracewell, who doubles as the live-in coach, appears to wield the real selection power. If it were any other way, would Glenn Turner, a Test opener of some repute, really allow the opening position to become the sacrificial lamb it is at present?
Second, it seems that new faces are easier for Bracewell to handle than old heads. The reduced role of Fleming as captain since Bracewell replaced Dennis Aberhart as coach has been widely documented. With the squeeze now going on Styris following on from the in-again-out-again run of Nathan Astle earlier this summer while the newer boys Fulton, How and Hamish Marshall are being given every possible chance to cement their places, the comparison to Mitchell's dumping of Anton Oliver, Taine Randell and Andrew Mehrtens - senior players who unashamedly spoke their mind - is uncanny.
Mitchell sought out and found a man who would follow orders in Reuben Thorne to lead the All Blacks and, while Fleming does not fall into that category, he has been given the privileged position of being able to bat at No. 4 despite the fact it upsets the balance of the team and was allowed to take plenty of time off when his child was born in December. As an aside, Vincent has been deemed ineligible for the upcoming South Africa tour because he wants to be at home for the birth of his child.
Third, Bracewell is now infamous for what has become known in New Zealand as "Mitch-speak". Just as Mitchell had a way of weaving his words to say little and confuse, in his latest pearler Bracewell said this week that once Oram had been passed as medically fit, it was up to the selectors to determine whether he was "skill-fit". If anyone knows what that means, please let me know. As it happens Oram took a career-best 6 for 45 in domestic cricket a few days back so, presumably, those skills that have seen him rack up 17 Tests have not disappeared.
Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show