Shane Bond the thoroughbred
Michael Atherton once asked the legendary horse trainer, Michael Stoute, how he could tell which of his young ones would go on to become the real thing. Stoute looked at him as if he was silly, then replied, "By the way they move."
It was what Dayle Hadlee, the former New Zealand Test bowler and older brother of Richard, thought when he glimpsed a teenage bowler from an unfashionable cricket school while himself playing a club game on an adjacent field in Christchurch. At tea, he popped across for a better look. He offered the boy a scholarship to the club.
If you've watched Shane Bond you know it already. This one is a thoroughbred. For someone who has only played 16 Tests and 63 one-dayers in five years, it is still not surprising that he keeps getting picked in World XIs by readers and experts alike. It is, for one, the way he moves, with sleek, intense, contained force. He just looks it. It's not too bad after the ball comes out either: close to express, with an inswinger able to whoosh through the merest fissure between bat and pad.
Bond's strike-rate of 27 is the best in the history of one-day cricket. His average of 19.05 puts him at no. 3, and one of the two above him, Tony Gray, has only taken 44 wickets to Bond's 120. In World Cup cricket, only Chris Old has a lower average than his 15.56. At the last competition he was a sensation, and his 6 for 23 against Australia was the finest bowling performance of the tournament. His average in this tournament is close to single figures, and might dip to it against Ireland, especially if New Zealand bowl first.
"My focus on this trip is to be as boring as I can," he says. "In the past, I suppose it was about breaking my previous best and I'd run in every day and try and break it. Now, I'm sort of over that sort of thing. The focus has been to take wickets and be as miserly as I can." To watch him here has been a somewhat different experience from 2003. The pace is down about 5-10 kmph, but with it too the economy to 2.29.
Damaged, repaired, remade, Bond has returned, different, but influential as ever. It's been a long and hard road back.
Even by crocked modern standards, few cricketers have had to endure as much injury as Bond. It had, ironically, to do with the way he moved, the twist in his delivery stride putting too much pressure on his spine. Hadlee, now bowling coach of the team and among the world's most respected analysts, recalls seeing him the day after he had surgery to his lower back three years ago after seasons of recurring trouble. "He didn't look good at all. It was a dramatic operation. They wired his back, like a v-shaped wire, screwed it in on either side. Then they packed it with bone taken from his hip."
Was it a last resort? "Very much. If it hadn't worked his career would have been over. But it was Shane's decision. He took the risk."
|It was a dramatic operation. They wired his back, like a v-shaped wire, screwed it in on either side. Then they packed it with bone taken from his hip|
Hadlee's own career had been limited because of stress fractures to his lower back - it is what led him to study bowling actions - which made him an appropriate ally for Bond during rehab. "It's taken many, many months," says Hadlee, "not only physically with incredibly hard programmes, but he's been building his workload up and also spending a lot of time on his technique. Because he was having a lot of twisting of the spine, the shoulders and hips weren't matching."
Challenging as it was, breaking down the action from start to finish was a fascinating process for Bond. He and Hadlee sat down with a biomechanical specialist and contemplated the way forward.
"We had two ways to go," remembers Hadlee. "We could either have the shoulders to match his hips or his hips to match his shoulders. We first tried working on the hips. We drew a large circle on the ground where we marked 90 degrees, 180 degrees, 270 degrees, 360 degrees, and we made him close his eyes and jump so he could understand where his body was while it was in the air because he didn't always understand that. We tried that for a period of time and it didn't work. So we decided to work on the shoulder alignments, to keep it absolutely as still as possible for as long as possible. The idea was they only move once, because his shoulders used to close, open, close - do a double movement. Now there's just one movement. So that's taken away a lot of stress from the spine."
Quite apart from reengineering the action was training his body to withstand further rigours. The basis of this physical regimen was boxing training.
"A very old-school boxing coach," says Hadlee. "Kevin Barry - his son won an Olympic boxing medal. A lovely gentleman, but a tough old-school coach. Makes them do twenty sit-ups and get up and punch a bag, then twenty press-ups and punch a bag, that sort of thing for an hour or two. Shane worked very hard on his footwork, boxing not people but hands, moving his feet, getting the hips and shoulders lined up."
"To Shane's credit he would always do it in the last session of the day. He's a very strong professional. He does his fitness work, and his gym work, and his swimming and all those other things. He did boxing last because he used to fade in the last session of the cricket day. So he saved the hardest part for last."
This Caribbean summer is worlds removed from Bond's Rocky-style New Zealand winters. Despite being in the middle of the game's premier competition, it has so far been as relaxing a time that Bond and his team-mates have had.
"Especially compared to South Africa last time," says Bond. "We watched a lot of what was going on at the World Cup on TV. You had the press, newspapers, you were sort of bombarded and swamped with it. Whereas here we have stayed in resorts, we haven't really read any newspapers and there haven't been many shows on television about cricket. So, I suppose for us as team, it gets you away from the pressures of it [World Cup]. Guys just watch movies, we play cards, play poker - I won a game today, won a bit of cash."
Is he the ace player? "Craig McMillan would like to tell you he is top seed, but I think probably Daniel Vettori and Brendon McCullum are the senior pros."
The mood reflects the state of New Zealand camp at the moment. There is a certain tranquillity to them. It's been eight matches now since they were defeated, starting with three in three against Australia, and then five on the run at the World Cup. Given some results and subsequent media reactions over the past couple of seasons, it seems remarkable that they are at this point proper contenders for the title.
"A lot of credit goes to John Bracewell," says Bond. "From last season, we have put into place systems and we have just trusted the system and gone through with it. Obviously, we haven't played well inside the year but there was a real calmness about the team. We knew what we were doing, we knew we could play better cricket, and we were believing at some stage we were going to kick into gear. We never went into panic stations; we had rotation, guys were being rested and coming in. Everyone understood what it was for. I think we are getting the rewards for that calmness. I don't think we have played as well and as consistent cricket as we have for this length of time, probably since I have been in the team."
Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar may not have made it to the West Indies, but there has been enough fast bowling on display. For raw spectacle, the remodelled, refined Bond has paled before Shaun Tait and Lasith Malinga at this tournament. Both excite him. "Tait, he's probably going through what I was earlier. He just wants to bowl fast. He's got tremendous pace, more than I ever had. He's in a good team environment and you expect big things from him."
|We always believe that if we can take Australia down to the last 10 overs of the game, then we have a chance. Just like anybody else, they make mistakes when they are placed under pressure|
"Malinga! It's one thing seeing him, another thing facing him. Usually you are watching the bowler's hand come up over his head. But all of a sudden you're watching the umpire's chest. And when he starts moving around on the crease, you start to wonder where to look next. I hate it when he does that!"
All three, and Malinga most of the three, have been lethal with the old ball. Bond does not think this has had much to do with reverse swing. "It is less of a factor nowadays. As soon as we get to a stage where it starts to move, the batsmen starts saying 'Well, I can't see the ball', and it is changed. You might have one or two overs. I don't think it is as prodigious as what it used to be. There used to be massive reverse swing. But also I think the hitters are better now. I mean, guys now practise it so much, hitting the ball out of the park at the end of the innings. It's probably the change of pace and length that is more important."
A change of pace is what New Zealand will themselves experience in the second leg of the Super Eights, where they must face the three other top sides of the tournament, back to back. The last of them is against the Big Daddies. Given recent results, it seems pertinent to ask Bond the secret of beating Australia.
"Well, we always believe that if we can take Australia down to the last 10 overs of the game, then we have a chance. We showed that at home. We chased down big scores and got to the business end of the game when we were in with a chance. Just like anybody else, they make mistakes when they are placed under pressure. You naturally lift when you play high-ranked teams. All we can do is play our game. We're lucky a lot of our key players are playing well and if our key players play well, our senior players play well then we're always a tough side to beat."
For Bond personally these are the days to make up for lost time. "It's easy to come to these tournaments and be nervous and worried. I definitely get nervous like every player, but it's an opportunity to do something great, it's an opportunity to win Cups. I just try and go out there and do the best that I can. It's not everyday you have a chance to live your dreams. And rather than think 'I hope I don't stuff up', I'm just trying to grasp it with both hands."
Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04