Brittle batting stunts New Zealand's growth
"Houston… we've had a problem here."
The haunting words of Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert about 320,000km from Earth might ring true for the New Zealand cricketers as they venture into one-day mode, first against England and then in the Champions Trophy.
Fortunately their problem is not an oxygen tank exploding in outer space and they're no more than 18,000km from home but captain Brendon McCullum's comments after the 2-0 Test series loss to England suggested they're some distance from where they'd like to be on the batting front.
McCullum admitted the result has riddled his team with self-doubt, despite improvements during the drawn home series.
The visitors could muster just 669 runs over four innings in England, the principle reason they'll remain eighth in the Test rankings probably until at least 2014. Their next Test series is in Bangladesh during October before a home summer against West Indies and India.
New Zealand's spell without a victory in England now extends to 14 years. Hopes of such rewards turned on their heel and exited through the picket fence on the Sunday at Lord's when they were routed for 68.
"That's a fair assessment," McCullum said. "Until that point our self-belief was high. It ripped our hearts out and started to create self-doubt which is a horrible thing in this game. That's what unfolded in this test. We had periods where we dominated but they didn't last long enough."
Any series where bowlers Neil Wagner and Tim Southee, averaging 25 and 19 respectively, feature in the top five batting averages makes grim reading.
Ross Taylor is the only batsman to come away with respectability. He produced two half-centuries of 66 at Lord's and 70 at Headingley in batting performances which eventually concertinaed.
Questions over New Zealand's inability to bat more than a couple of sessions endure.
The visitors lacked the skills to cope with Graeme Swann when he got near the left-armer footmarks or the England pace trio swinging, seaming and generating steepling bounce on occasion. Eyes will be trained on how the batting department, led by Bob Carter, counters such regular implosions.
The Test futures of Martin Guptill, Peter Fulton and Dean Brownlie will come in for scrutiny. Guptill only played at Headingley, with at least one of his 31 matches against every Test-playing nation, but he averages less than 30 against all but Bangladesh (two innings at 245), West Indies (four innings at 69.25) and Zimbabwe (three innings at 53.33). The New Zealand cricketer of the year will likely be forced to concentrate on limited-overs for now, with a fit BJ Watling worthy of retention and McCullum moving back up the order.
Fulton's assessment might seem harsh after his golden return during the home series against England with two centuries at Eden Park. However, his tour record of 67 runs at 9.57 reads ominously. Still, he has been the best opening candidate domestically. There are few alternatives unless they return to Aaron Redmond, Michael Papps, Daniel Flynn or experiment with Jeet Raval.
Brownlie showed resolve during the second innings at Headingley only to get a brute of a ball from Steven Finn which he gloved to gully. At least he endured 96 minutes for his 25 in a partnership of 79 with Taylor. Brownlie remains under inspection for a lack of runs outside the hard and fast wickets of Australia and South Africa. He has been sent to India to practise against spin, but Swann bowling him between bat and pad in the first innings must have been galling.
McCullum agreed the team was mentally worn down. "There was an element of that. England grew in confidence after that last innings at Lord's and we started to doubt ourselves as a batting group. Once that creeps in it's hard to stop. It's definitely a step backwards. England flexed their muscle and we failed to respond."
Compounding the failure is left-armer Trent Boult's right side strain which leaves him in doubt for the Champions Trophy. He will be assessed in London but his impact across both Test series has been profound, taking 19 wickets at 25.47 including Alastair Cook four times. Ian Butler will take leave of his Lashings XI commitments if injury strikes.
There's no reason New Zealand can't chart a course back into batting form. They will benefit from a spike in experience for the 50-over format with eight new players. McCullum welcomed the transition, especially into a side which won an ODI series in South Africa for the first time in January.
The 30-somethings - Grant Elliott, James Franklin, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills and Daniel Vettori - each bring a wealth of limited overs experience. Mitchell McClenaghan also opened the bowling with aggression and reward against South Africa while Colin Munro can be a brutal middle-order hitter.
Luke Ronchi will debut as an opener. He's sat out his four-year stand down after playing four ODIs and three T20s for Australia. It's under discussion whether Ronchi or McCullum will keep in the upcoming ODIs. Ronchi took the gloves in the warm-up match against a Northamptonshire XI.
Concerns were raised about McCullum's fitness for the job when he became stiff filling in for Watling in the second test. "I wasn't as fluent as I would like," he said.
The team finds out whether they're ready for re-entry into a decent batting atmosphere on Friday at Lord's.
Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday