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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on December 6, 2008, 0:00 GMT

    Many of you make very good comments, and if I had the time I would have my say on every point that has been raised, however I will refrain to one: selection methods and management. 1: Talent is NOT an issue in NZ - we have very good pool of talented players given our population. Selection processes IS an issue. It was mentioned Papps averaged over 100 a couple of seasons ago - and was rightly selected, however by the time the NZ first class season had finished, NZ didnt play test cricket for 5 months. You cannot expect the same form 5months between drinks. Essentially, the people associated with selection obviously do not take into account WHEN to select people and when to not. There appears to be many Blackcaps fans with some good ideas on management and selection... maybe we should all get together as a coup to smash NZ cricket back into shape!

  • Garth on December 5, 2008, 9:08 GMT

    As for Martin.

    If I were boss, I'd fire any selector who even broached the subject of selecting the opening bowler based on his batting average.

    Come on!

    Hes honest, hard working, and he turns up and bowls. Thats it. Thats his job. Hes played a role far outside of his ability to the best able to him (that of attack spearhead). Franklin will surely be back in the team soon, but he has been out long term due to injury. Mills, yeah sure hes alright, but hardly any scarier than Martin. O'Brien's putting in a good showing as well. Southee is impressive with both bat and ball. And with Spin bowling in good steed we have good bowling resources which is great to see. Competition for their places based on their bowling has got to be good for all.

    But rest assured, our test team will not become winners because we pick a bowler who is a better batsman than Chris Martin.

    However, our Team might start doing better if we pick batsmen who are better batsmen than Chris Martin...

  • Garth on December 5, 2008, 8:56 GMT


    We do not need to play a team in Australia's Domestic Competition. We have the money, we have the setup, and we have world class one day players

    Take a look at "the numbers game" In the 1980's we had a good test record, much better than Aussie. Did Australia consider playing a team in our domestic competition then?

    We are useless currently in test cricket. Our batsmen bat for 50 overs max, combined. We can get 270 if we are lucky on a great pitch. But hold on a minute...

    Prior to the last world cup, NZC spent the build up YEAR concentrating on ODI's. We did pretty good, and looked dominant until the last two games.

    We just beat England home and away in 2 5 match one day series. And every kiwi remembers the 3 match drubbing of Aussie a couple of years ago.

    Our test team is crap because we no longer play 3 match test series and have maybe one warm up match.

    Our one day team is pretty damm good.

    They are pretty much the same players. Hmmm... practice makes perfect??

  • StJohn on December 4, 2008, 16:01 GMT

    NZ domestic teams playing in the Sheffield Shield sounds like a great idea to boost standards & competitiveness & the rivalry between Australia & NZ would add spice to that mix. I read of an identical idea for improving standards in Bangladesh - that Bangladeshi domestic teams should play in the Indian domestic tournaments. All great ideas, but it would be really interesting to know: is anything being done to actively consider or implement these ideas? It's a pity when good, constructive ideas like these are simply left floating in the ether. Perhaps Cricinfo & the journalists who write these articles could answer that and perhaps we could even have a Cricinfo survey or petition about it, to be sent to the relevant national boards? For all the criticism of the Stanford Super Series, I really liked the Middlesex v Trinidad & Tobago game. Perhaps "international" matches between domestic teams is a good way to breathe new life into domestic competitions and spice up cricket?

  • Peter on December 4, 2008, 8:44 GMT

    A good article, not totally correct but interesting reading.

    I think a precedent was set when NZ cricket did not stand up to the BCCI over Bond and the ICL.

    From that point on we have been weak. Fans and players no longer felt pride or strength in who we are. NZ has always been a rugged nation, a nation built on a culture of farming and rugby, a nation of hard arses. Being pushed around by big names has never been our style and ever since Justin Vaughan and his lot gave in to the BCCI, we lost our pride and identity of who we are.

    Martin Crowe is dead right, our players are confused. They dont know if NZC will stand up for them anymore. How can you ask our top six batsmen to have the mindset of battling it out for 2 days, when the admin is being pushed around like a bunch of girls?

    NZC must find a resolute policy and fight for our players, give them confidence in their futures so they can go out and express their fight on the field.

  • Sam on December 4, 2008, 5:41 GMT

    To have lost the services of Shane Bond the way we did was really disappointing. Bond always performed well against Australia, in fact I think his best stats came from playing them. I am living in Australia but keep an eye on the domestic results and am wondering why Franklin and Mills are not in the side. When I see Martin pick up the bat, usually nedding to be reminded that you hold the handle not bat with it, I wince. Mills or Franklin can bowl as well as him and carry a bat as well. When the tail is so often called upon to bat can NZ really afford to use players like Martin in Test cricket? I think a lot of our woes stem from poor selection and a lack of team consistency, the talent is there. Exposure to the Australian first class competition could not hurt either.

  • johnny on December 4, 2008, 4:35 GMT

    Peter, acn';t agree more with you on many points, particularly that it would have helped NZ's cause considerably to have some of those senior players still around - had Bracewell not polarised a few of them with his fiery approach and disastrous man-management skills and had the ICL/IPL threat not been left to eat away at the likes of NZ's test player pool by world cricket. It saddens me, as a cricket fanatic, that 20/20 is being promoted by many as the future for international cricket. It debases the game, ruling out many of the deft skills which test cricket - the ultimate form of the game - enables to come to the fore. Put more emphasis on test cricket and 50-over ODIs... leave 20/20 for the Lancashire leagues. As for NZ cricket, what you say is pretty much true about its decline. It's not too late, but the ICC must show some teeth in supporting NZC because NZC's administrators haven't shown any teeth yet.

  • David on December 4, 2008, 3:49 GMT

    The reason New Zealand is 8th in the test rankings is because they have the lowest population of all the test teams.

    However it will be interesting to see, with all the money coming to New Zealand from India, how they will improve in the future. The exra money will mean the best athletes in the country will be playing cricket. Soon athletes who are like Sonny Bill Williams and Benji Marshall will be playing for the black Caps.

    Also, why do we have to assume that NZ was foolish to refuse to play in Kenya and they would not have won the 2003 World Cup.

  • Sarma on December 4, 2008, 3:23 GMT

    NZL is not as bad as is made out in this article. They lost a series with Australia 0-2 but then they did not play two of their top players - JEC Franklin and Jacob Oram. They lost the services of Shane Bond as their Board was successfully bullied by the BCCI. They should have strengthened spin attack by having Chris Martin, Vettori and Jeetan Patel (as Franklin and Bond are not playing) play each match along with Iain O'Brien and Mark Gillespie. Southee needs more time, it looks. In batting, I think that Matthew Sinclair still has some test cricket and should not have been dumped. Daniel Flynn appears good and so are Jesse Ryder and Ross Taylor. A team consisting of Ryder, Taylor, Oram, Sinclair, Flynn, McCullum, Vettori, Shane Bond, JEC Franklin, Mark Gillespie and Chris Martin is very strong. I feel that the basic problem is team selection, not talent deficit.

  • Adrian on December 4, 2008, 1:45 GMT

    3 letters - ICL. Too many current stars of New Zealand cricket (especially Shane Bond) are playing in the ICL or are otherwise taken from the game. Stephen Fleming, Craig McMillan, Lou Vincent and Shane Bond should be walk up starts for the side. Andre Adams (ICL) and Kyle Mills (oddly omitted) should be in the side too. The injury to star all-rounder Jacob Oram didn't help either. Add those players to the mix, on top of the great captaincy of Stephen Fleming, and you have a side of the strength that New Zealand has offered for most of the past decade - a truly world class side. The solution, very simply, is to remove all of the bans from playing ICL. Let them play ICL and be eligible to play (on merit) for their country. End the idiocy.

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