December 3, 2008

The enemy within

New Zealand cricket has been reduced to its present low state chiefly by a lack of cohesion



Bracewell: "too wild for the position" © Getty Images

New Zealand cricket is at low ebb. Although it may not return to the desperate days of the last century - when individual deeds were celebrated in the absence of any hope of victory, a period when Australia deigned to play them once in 30 years - the nation's cricket community is struggling. Curiously it has been reduced not by bad administration or a lack of resources or even formidable rivalry from the muddied oafs but rather by its own want of cohesion. New Zealand's cricket has failed to unite behind the common cause. Over the years it has had more splinter groups than a Maoist party. Until New Zealand cricket works with a single mind it will not climb the rankings. Adopting the old adage, they will either hang together or separately.

Next week New Zealand starts a home series with West Indies, an equally fractured outfit suffering from all manner of malaises. West Indies has plenty of talent but not the sense of service or the work ethic required to reach the top. Instead, present players wander around in a state of miserable bliss whilst yesterday's champions fill their pockets with loot. CLR James and Frank Worrell must look down on both parties with disdain. The highest achievement possible for this team is to climb to seventh in the rankings. Probably it will be too much like hard work. A lot of easy money can be made from Stanford and other 20-over formations.

Accordingly the Kiwis could retain seventh spot on the log, but it'd be a mistake to let a few bright days blur the picture. New Zealand cricket is in decline and an enormous effort will be needed to bring about a revival. Demoralisation is not far away, with aging players hurrying to cash in their chips and write point-scoring books, and callow youths suffering seasons of failure and taking scars into adulthood. New Zealand's most talented cricketers tend to start and finish too early - a luxury a small nation can ill afford.

The team must not be allowed to slide any further. Over the last 25 years New Zealand has been a respected, resolute, intelligent outfit. In those years it has produced several superb cricketers and fielded a number of highly regarded sides. Often the players were caricatured as a craggy lot, inclined to chew gum and frustrate opponents, but they played a hard game and never gave up. Now and then a champion emerged - Richard Hadlee, Glenn Turner, Martin Crowe and, almost, Chris Cairns, but mostly the Kiwis lived on their wits. As a rule the sides were a distinctive mixture of dedicated professional and maverick. Always the characters - blockers or dashers, drinkers or thinkers, were writ large.

As far as bowling was concerned, they kept a niggardly length, and with a few notable exceptions were as menacing as a jam sandwich. Dibbly dobblies were the main fare on offer, inviting deliveries that meandered towards the other end with the sort of wan smile that has such a powerful effect upon red-blooded batsmen. Ewen Chatfield, Willie Watson and Martin Snedden were canny, unflagging fast-mediums capable of pinning down even the most commanding players. Gavin Larsen, Jeremy Coney and Bev Congdon teased opponents with their lack of pace. On damp tracks with slow bounce, they were a handful. Elsewhere they had the brains and cheek needed to upset batsmen.

As far as batting was concerned, New Zealand famously put a high price on their wickets. Now and then fieldsmen felt obliged to enquire whether a Kiwi batsman had breathed his last. John Parker, Mark Richardson, Bruce Edgar and Bev Congdon could be included in the honourable role of sticks in the mud whose obdurate defences blunted many a sharp attack. Although seldom the prettiest to watch, these rugged practitioners put runs on the board. It is hard to imagine them batting as loosely as did their successors down under recently, when wickets were thrown away like hats at Armistice. Indeed the only encouraging sign to emerge for the second Test match was the witty blog posted by Iain O'Brien, an honest seamer with a self-effacing sense of humour.

 
 
New Zealand cricket lacks the powerful idea that scorns pettiness. In a small nation particularly, it is possible to want too much. It is also hard to avoid backbiting
 

New Zealand has an identity and a strong history. Unfortunately it also has an ability to lose focus. All sorts of arguments can break out, between north and south, rural and urban, past and present, critic and player, coach and captain; and most are publicly aired. Perhaps it is because the pool of talent is not deep enough to prevent heads swelling or differences growing. New Zealand rugby is bound together by the idea of the All Blacks and their haka. Everything else shrivels besides this great tradition. New Zealand cricket lacks the powerful idea that scorns pettiness. And even the All Blacks can lose their way at the critical moments. In a small nation particularly, it is possible to want too much. It is also hard to avoid backbiting.

It was not so much the defeat in Australia that told the tale as the nature of the defeat. Not long before, New Zealand was hard pressed to beat Bangladesh. Had Daniel Vettori switched sides, the weak Bangladeshis might have won. Simply, New Zealand lacked resolution and technique. The bowling was presentable - the pacemen persevered and the captain dropped his spinners on a length - but the batting was woeful. It was astonishing to see so many batsmen caught in the covers. The Australians were grateful. After all, they had a few troubles of their own.

New Zealand needs to form a strong group of elders dedicated to the task of restoring the national cricket team. So many mistakes have been made. The appointment of John Bracewell was chief among them. Determined to impose himself but lacking the skills required to guide players of different ages and dispositions, he broke up the team and drove players away before their time was up. The last thing an experienced side needs is an avid controller at the helm. As a result of the various upsets, Stephen Fleming and others walked away prematurely. Australians can dump players of that calibre once signs of deterioration have been detected. Not that it is easy to persuade veterans to retain fitness, ambition and devotion once they start to drift. Apart from anything else the temptations of the ICL and the IPL have a strong appeal to cricketers nearing retirement, whose wages have been relatively modest. All the more reason to make them feel appreciated.

At least Bracewell wanted the job. New Zealand and West Indies cricket suffer from a plethora of past players aware that they can make a better and easier living as observers of the game. Rather than fighting this fact the Kiwis may need to recognise it. After all, Allan Border and Mark Taylor work for TV companies while also serving as directors of Cricket Australia. Merv Hughes combines his duties as a selector with leading tour parties and speaking at lots of functions. CA takes the pragmatic view that conflicts of interest of this sort cannot be avoided if one is to not waste a vast amount of cricketing knowledge.



Fleming left too early. New Zealand needs to make its senior players feel more wanted © Getty Images

New Zealand's most obvious mistake in recent times was backing down over Shane Bond. Apparently, the country's fastest bowler had obtained clearance from his board to play ICL. Reassured that his international career was not imperilled by signing, Bond put his moniker on the dotted line. But the BCCI insisted that ICL players must be outlawed, and NZ Cricket caved in. Of course, the financial stakes were high but NZ Cricket had given its word. It ought rather to have cancelled the game for a year than backed down in the face of intimidation. Instead they sent a message to all players: Look after yourselves.

At least officials stood firm on the appointment of a new coach. Various candidates wanted to be able to withdraw for a bit to take up lucrative 20-over contracts with franchises in India. No such license was given. New Zealand needs to keep thinking along those lines. Coaching a national team is an important position and not to be bestowed upon the distracted.

Above all, New Zealand cricket needs to recover its strength of mind. Bracewell's departure will help, for he was too wild for the position. But he was not to blame for the weak batting in Adelaide or the fact that too many capable players have too easily swapped New Zealand's silver for the gold available on the subcontinent. A powerful plan must be put in place, with intelligent leadership, improving facilities, and pride taken in every victory. New Zealand cricket needs to be happy.

Over the years New Zealand's cricketers often overperformed. Under astute captains like Coney or Stephen Fleming, or when a touch of greatness was added to a canny outfit, they were hard to beat. Had the team not so foolishly refused to play in Kenya, they might have won the 2003 World Cup. But the self-destructive streak was never far away.

Above all, New Zealand prospers when the entire community gets behind the captain and his team. Anything else is an indulgence.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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