A shortage of talent November 22, 2007

Where have all the fast men gone?

The chief reason for New Zealand's plight in Test cricket is the lack of top-quality fast bowlers



Bond has been New Zealand's one genuine spearhead - when he plays, that is © Getty Images

New Zealand have played 33 Test matches since the start of 2003, and of those they have won just nine and lost 14. When you consider that of those nine victories four have come against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and a further two against a very poor West Indies, it does not paint a rosy picture for New Zealand. Add the fact that the only away victories were the two against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and that picture gets even less attractive.

New Zealand are a good ODI team. They have playing personnel who are quite comfortable and adept with the skills required in the short version of the game. One-day cricket is a formulaic world, where players are mostly called on to deal with various situations. Test match cricket, however, is a different kettle of fish. Test match cricket is cricket in its pure form. It is player versus player, a pure battle between bat and ball. New Zealand lose too many of these battles.

At the heart of it is quick bowling. New Zealand lack genuine fast bowlers, and get knocked over by fast bowling far too often: Steve Harmison, Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami, Lasith Malinga, and Dayle Steyn have all done a job on the New Zealanders over the last few years.

In New Zealand there appears to be a general unfamiliarity with genuine fast bowling. The first-class scene is dominated by medium-pacers, on wickets that offer little bounce but plenty of sideways movement. A domestic environment that is not conducive to fast bowling does not produce fast bowling either. This means that debutants are called on to confront bowling of a completely different standard when they get the call-up for Test cricket. Surely, though, they will gain the necessary familiarity by playing Test matches? Well yes, but 33 Tests in five years is simply not enough to build the required skills fast enough.

In New Zealand there appears to be unfamiliarity with genuine fast bowling. The first-class scene is dominated by medium-pacers, on wickets that offer little bounce but plenty of sideways movement. This means that debutants are called on to confront bowling of a completely different standard when they get the call-up for Test cricket

The 1980s are often referred to by New Zealand cricket fans as the glory years. Perhaps they should have been referred to as the Hadlee years. In Sir Richard Hadlee, New Zealand had a genuine spearhead, who in tandem with capable support bowlers formed a formidable unit. There was quality in the batting, with the likes of Martin Crowe, but most importantly Crowe's runs were made into match-winning ones by a bowling unit that had the ability to take 20 wickets.

In later years the run scoring has been sporadic, with some capable batting and the odd collapse. During this period there has hardly ever been a bowling unit capable of taking 20 wickets. Sure, there has been more than capable support bowling, but all too often the spearhead who makes it an effective Test match working unit has been missing. I'm talking about Shane Bond. In the last six years Bond has only played 17 Test matches, but New Zealand have won more than half of those.

Inconsistent results from the batsmen have meant that New Zealand's selectors have had to grasp at straws. Players who make a couple of centuries at the domestic level enter the selection frame. There is no culture of selection under which players prove themselves over time and are only asked to make the step up when they are fully familiar with the key elements of their own games. But then again, how could such a system exist when a batting average in the low thirties or even high twenties is enough to keep a batsman in a first-class team?

New Zealand now finds itself in a transition period in Test cricket. There is uncertainty over the make-up of the side. In fact, the only certainty is that the team's Test match fortunes are not looking like improving anytime soon.

Somehow New Zealand must start producing Test-match-quality cricketers. Its academy over the last decade has failed to produce enough consistently world-class performers, as has the first-class environment.

It's my opinion that cricketers of this sort are not manufactured but develop through necessity. You simply can't ask a player to play a certain way, or coach it into them, if in their eyes there is a better way. In New Zealand that better way is being front-foot orientated, and bowling within oneself and letting the pitch do the work. Somehow an environment needs to be fostered where fast bowlers, legspinners, and high-scoring batsmen are allowed to develop and emerge as marquee players.