The 30-year catfight
Ah, you'd like to know why New Zealanders beat themselves up so often over the game of cricket, would you? Want an insight into the game's longest-running bitch-fight? The little town that couldn't stop squabbling? Well, here's a tip - you're not ready to know, okay? You're not capable of dealing with the misery, the anguish. You couldn't handle the truth.
Think of it for a moment. Twenty-six years until we won our first Test. All out for 26 in a Test innings. Our greatest player, Bert Sutcliffe - never played in a Test-winning side. Dismissed for under 100 five times during the 1958 tour of England.
It hasn't been just the distant past, either. Stephen Fleming's side was skittled for 73 at Lahore in 2002 and for 76 a couple of years later at Brisbane. The Test team is accurately ranked seventh, one place above a rabble of a West Indian side and two above Bangladesh. Humiliation visited as recently as November, when the New Zealanders were routed in back-to-back Tests in South Africa.
The one-day side continues to frustrate, even when presented with the equivalent of a rigged draw at the most recent World Cup. They failed to make the finals of last year's tri-series in Australia, losing to an ordinary England outfit. And they were pasted in the recent Chappell-Hadlee series.
And the point of all this? Well, what do you expect us to talk about? The cricket? How tidily Craig Cumming collapsed after being hit flush on the cheekbone by Dale Steyn? How well the attack performed the day it restricted Herschelle Gibbs to 119 off 101 balls? Maybe the strike potential of the 31-year-old fast-medium Iain O'Brien?
Hell, we've always preferred to argue and joust. Given a choice of discussing either the awful reality of our struggling team or the relationships between the coach and players, we head for the soft target every time. We bicker about anything: selections, personalities, the coach John Bracewell's latest media gaffe. Anything that takes our minds off the real problem - the fact we have a mediocre team.
Yes, yes, it's true there have been exceptions, under John Reid initially, and later when the 1980s side was boosted by our only two genuinely great players of the modern era: Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe. But by and large New Zealand have lagged well behind the more established Test sides. Partly we are hampered by a lack of genuine talent, partly by a rather limited income and - until more recently - a second-class playing programme.
The result? Well, this is where it gets interesting. We've explored and experimented. We've theorised and calculated, summoned experts in psychology, nutrition and baseball. We have appointed any number of consultants, all in the hope of discovering a way of compensating for an ordinary team.
Faced with the limitations of our resources, we've tried just about every crazy ruse short of seeking the help of a professional sorcerer, blind in our faith that there must be something that can be done.
The problem with this, though, is that for every successful idea or experiment, there have probably been 20 that failed spectacularly, helping create a small army of disgruntled current and former players who like nothing better than the chance to attack real or imagined adversaries.
|For every successful idea or experiment, there have probably been 20 that failed spectacularly, helping create a small army of disgruntled current and former players who like nothing better than the chance to attack real or imagined adversaries|
It's also true that the strength of some of the Kiwi personalities has been a bit over the top, particularly at the time Hadlee and his captain Jeremy Coney were not on speaking terms, with Martin Snedden and John Wright being used as intermediaries. But things really began to heat up during Glenn Turner's coaching reign in the mid-1990s. In he came after the frankly disastrous tour of South Africa in 1994-95, with the firm idea that starting afresh was the best course of action.
The captain, Ken Rutherford, was discarded at the height of his powers and, aggrieved, he played out the rest of his first-class career in South Africa. Mark Greatbatch was squeezed out. Martin Crowe felt pressured into announcing his retirement. Turner introduced Lee Germon as his puppet captain, played the wicketkeeper Adam Parore exclusively as a batsman, and presided over a team that eventually imploded in discontent - to the extent that Parore and Chris Cairns were suspected of feigning injury in order not to play.
In the end New Zealand Cricket backed the players and Turner was replaced by the brash Australian Steve Rixon, leaving the discarded coach to air his thoughts on that matter - and quite a few others - in a wide-ranging book entitled Lifting the Covers.
It's important to remember too, that, in the boutique industry that is New Zealand cricket, everyone is still someone. Hadlee is now a selector, Wright is the high-performance chief. Snedden was the board's chief executive for five years. Crowe is the executive producer of Sky TV's cricket, Parore a media commentator, Germon the chief executive of Canterbury Cricket.
In other cricketing nations former players might fade quietly into the background, but in New Zealand they're almost always retained in some sort of peripheral capacity, giving plenty of individuals with strong opinions plenty of chances to express them.
For all that, quite why New Zealand cricketers seem to delight in writing caustic, often near-septic, memoirs of their careers has yet to be adequately explained. Turner's was just one of a library of rebuttals penned around that period, albeit one of the better ones. Rutherford let loose with Helluva Way to Earn a Living, Crowe was the subject of authorised and unauthorised biographies, Danny Morrison had a go, as did Greatbatch. Even Chris Pringle felt the need to get a few things off his chest.
Yet, whatever you might make of this, it has to be said that the bellyaching and griping in New Zealand has often been of a much higher standard than a lot of the cricket played, which is probably why there are more people interested in reading the thoughts of a Parore or a Morrison than there are willing to attend the games.
The public bloodletting has not shown any sign of easing either. Nathan Astle - as reserved and staid as you could imagine - recently released an autobiography in which he vented his spleen about Bracewell's management style, the team's peer-assessment programme, and the national side's selection process. His main complaint was that he, Chris Cairns and Craig McMillan were victims of an experiment hatched between Bracewell and the former high-performance chief Ric Charlesworth - a strategy aimed at making senior players feel less comfortable (and therefore more hungry) about their position in the side. Charlesworth has since gone but Bracewell has shown no sign of abandoning his experimental approach, and as a result, the number of players willing to express their dissatisfaction and annoyance grows.
Jesse Ryder, the young allrounder picked to make his one-day debut against England in the current series, appeared to sever all ties with New Zealand's selectors last year when he refused to make himself available for the national A side, on the grounds that he should have already been picked for the Black Caps. Ryder then suggested that he might explore his England eligibility, given his grandparents' British ancestry.
Next came Andre Adams, the star of New Zealand's domestic programme this summer, who not long ago revealed that he had been involved in an angry exchange with Bracewell over his future prospects, and that he'd turned down the opportunity of joining the one-day side in South Africa. Adams also said that he was sick and tired of Bracewell's methods, that he felt no loyalty to New Zealand cricket, and that he'd sign for the Indian Cricket League rebels in a flash if he was to receive an offer.
|Quite why New Zealand cricketers seem to delight in writing caustic, often near-septic, memoirs of their careers has yet to be adequately explained|
The outbursts followed similarly frustrated comments from other current players, including McMillan, who was peeved not to be named in the Test squad for South Africa last year, and Mathew Sinclair, who so far has been dropped from the team on ten occasions. And that's not to mention Lou Vincent, who has been questioning Bracewell's modus operandi since being dropped from the Test team in 2006, apparently because he expressed a preference to bat down the order rather than opening.
All of which goes to show that, even if New Zealand continue to struggle, there should be no shortage of spats and squabbles to keep the genuine aficionados interested and to provide some sort of distraction from whatever's going on in the middle. In the world of New Zealand cricket, it seems we'd just as soon watch the argument as the game.
Richard Boock is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Star-Times in New Zealand. This article was first published in the March 2008 issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here