New Zealand in South Africa, 2005-06 September 29, 2005

The case for Cairns

For 15 years a fit Chris Cairns has been a permanent fixture in New Zealand cricket teams. Until this week that is

Will New Zealand regret not having Cairns's death overs bowling expertise in South Africa? © Getty Images

For 15 years a fit Chris Cairns has been a permanent fixture in New Zealand cricket teams. Until this week that is, when he was left out of the one-day side to tour South Africa next month. But while his omission sends a clear message of what is expected of international cricketers, there remains a strong case for Cairns's inclusion.

It is almost unthinkable that the words "I was a liability" could be uttered by Cairns, for years the one New Zealand player opposition teams genuinely feared. Yet this was Cairns's description to The New Zealand Herald of his recent performances in Zimbabwe after being told by the New Zealand selectors this week that he was surplus to requirements.

A hamstring strain limited Cairns's impact in Zimbabwe but injuries are not necessarily a tell-tale sign that he's now 35; injuries and Cairns go together like motor racing and high-speed crashes. In the 119 Tests New Zealand played over the duration of Cairns's Test career, he played in 62 and missed 57.

For Cairns though, it's not just a dodgy leg that sees him sidelined this time, rather it's a general "lack of cricket fitness" as John Bracewell, the convenor of selectors, put it. Simply, it can be interpreted that he doesn't don the whites often enough. Actually, he hasn't donned them at first-class level at all in over a year.

When retiring from Test cricket at Trent Bridge last year - where he took nine wickets - to concentrate on his one-day career, Cairns argued that to prolong his career he had to stop playing Tests and first-class matches as his could body could no longer handle their rigours. Surprisingly, New Zealand Cricket was happy to go along with it.

It was accepted, then, that a few domestic one-dayers would be sufficient preparation for Cairns to keep performing in ODIs. That this season's selection panel does not share that view comes as no surprise though. One of the new panel members, Glenn Turner, lost his job as New Zealand's coach after the ill-fated tour of the Caribbean in 1996 when his relationship with Cairns broke down irretrievably. Ten years on, with Turner being invited back into a position of influence, the tables are turned.

Bracewell told The New Zealand Herald, "there is an obvious solution: he just needs more cricket." Cairns has signalled that "more cricket" will ironically be exactly the format of the game he's argued so persuasively his body is unable to cope with: four-day domestic matches for his province Canterbury.

The problem for Cairns, however, is that the State Championship does not commence until December 5, two days after the first game of the Chappell-Hadlee series. So wouldn't his best chance of getting sufficient match practice to be considered for that series be to play some competitive cricket right now?

There are options. New Zealanders have long looked towards club cricket in Australia as preparation during pre-season and in places like North Queensland, the season began in mid-September. The national team also has two warm-up matches against South Africa A and a Twenty20 international ahead of the first ODI at Bloemfontein.

Even if Cairns's match fitness is not quite 100%, should he not be picked for these warm-ups anyway in a bid to improve that fitness? Additionally and crucially, his proven ability to bowl at the death - something no New Zealand bowler has been able to consistently cope with in recent memory - would have provided a bonus. But with Shane Bond back to do the job at one end, perhaps the selectors see it as less of an issue.

Last September, the ICC Champions Trophy marked the start of Cairns's ODI-only stint. Interestingly, since then, his record and especially his bowling belies suggestions that his efforts have been below par. In 17 matches, his batting average might have dipped to 25 from a career of touching 30, but his bowling has thrived: 19 wickets at approximately 27 against a career average of 32. As a comparison, the only other bowler to play regularly in that period - Kyle Mills - has taken 21 wickets at nearly 30, although his economy rate shades Cairns's.

Cairns's stated goal is to bow out of cricket after the 2007 World Cup and, until now, it looked a distinct possibility. But now with two unexpected seasons of first-class cricket as well as the usual glut of ODIs ahead of him in the meantime, the task just got harder. If Cairns does need any inspiration though, he should look no further than Darren Gough, who remains effective in ODIs while fulfilling his first-class commitments, also at the age of 35.

Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show