August 27, 2009

Dan Solo

New Zealand's second-highest Test wicket-taker has just gone past 300, and it's been a hard, lonely row he's had to plough

On the afternoon before this Test, as the local media personnel gathered their recorders and microphones from the table on stage, Daniel Vettori turned to the two touring New Zealand journalists and poked one in the elbow. "I can't believe you didn't mention me going past Derek Underwood," he said with a smile, referring to his 298th wicket, which he had taken in Galle.

It was a poignant moment, for it almost encapsulated Vettori's Test career. Slowly and steadily, without the panache, menace and unflappability of the three leading contemporary spin-bowling greats he studied so closely, Vettori has crossed three significant milestones as a New Zealand spinner. His contributions have not always been matched by his numbers. He has had more barren runs than hot streaks. He is unlikely to inspire a generation to turn their left arms over.

And yet a day later here he was, the most powerful captain in the world, New Zealand's leading wicket-taker and run-scorer on tour - in Galle he scored the most runs and took the most wickets - having gone past 300 Test wickets. The first New Zealand spinner to do so.

You can't blame Vettori for wanting to tap you on the shoulder. The last two times he turned over a century landmark it was overshadowed seemingly by more important issues. When he took his 100th Test wicket in Auckland in 2000, the press lapped up how Shane Warne had ended Dennis Lillee's 16-year reign as Australia's leading wicket-taker. When Vettori went past 200, in his 63rd Test, in Harare in 2005, those following the match bemoaned the future of Zimbabwean cricket.

Yesterday you could sense the anticipation as Vettori brought himself on for the 11th over. The PA announcer reminded the smattering of a crowd that the New Zealand captain was on 298. Vettori struck second ball, drifting one in marginally to Tharanaga Paranavitana, who poked to slip. Wicket no. 299.

Vettori had to wait until lunch, in his 16th over, to pass the milestone. When Jacob Oram took a catch off a Kumar Sangakkara slog-sweep, Vettori allowed himself a pump of the fists and a smile. He had spoken of his eagerness to cross his proudest individual achievement: "There's nothing worse than lingering around milestones."

Vettori's achievement is remarkable, considering its historical context - before him there had only been one Zealand spinner to take 100 Test wickets, John Bracewell. Vettori admitted to two ambitions early in his career, first 100 wickets and then 100 Tests. He has knocked one of them over by some way. The second is just six games away. Along the way he endured massive drops of form and two seasons with severe back stress-fractures. The puffy red cheeks turned slimmer, the hairstyles changed, there was even a beard. The focus has stayed constant.

A good thing too, for he has had to battle the odds. Spin bowlers need support, but Vettori has not always had it. His accuracy has been unwavering, but a lack of back-up has hampered his variety and penetration. He has rarely had enough runs to work with to showcase his true worth, and New Zealand's fast bowlers have all too often failed to strike at the top, forcing him into defence instead of attack. Despite being gifted with an innate understanding of his fields, Vettori has had to persist in bowling line and length instead of taking risks such as tossing the ball up and experimenting with catchers.

Too many times he's had to rely on the stock spinner and arm ball. Instead of running through lower orders he has frequently had to wear them down. Too often he has had to attack with a nugget instead of a rock

The ability to land the ball on a dime is perhaps the fundamental attribute Test cricket's best wicket-takers share, and Vettori, though gifted in that area, is far from great. Circumstances have forced him to bowl with the weight of the world seemingly on his shoulders. That he as captain has won New Zealand just one Test with the ball - against Bangladesh - is indicative of the lack of depth in the team's attack.

Too many times he's had to rely on the stock spinner and arm ball. Instead of running through lower orders he has frequently had to wear them down. Too often he has had to attack with a nugget instead of a rock. A higher trajectory has often tempted batsmen to hit him straight. There were injuries that necessitated a change in action, which resulted in a loss of form and confidence. He has gone through lean spells, most notably three years without a five-wicket haul, and there have been occasions on which he has failed to cash in on tailormade surfaces. That helps explain why the bowling average isn't so hot.

Vettori has been a more destructive force in limited-overs cricket, where the spells are far shorter and he has not had to carry the attack over one or two days. In fact, he was one of the leaders, after Sri Lanka's array of spinners, in proving that spin had a role in 50-over cricket. He has mastered the art of varying his pace and length in the one-day game, and has repeatedly been able to staunch runs in the middle overs, while taking wickets. Vettori himself has admitted he gets more chances in ODIs for wickets, with fielders in spots where he wouldn't have them in Tests. He is New Zealand's leading one-day bowler, with 233 wickets. In Twenty20 internationals he is third on the world wicket-takers' list, with 25 from 16 games at an economy of 5.50 and strike-rate of 15.30.

Vettori is one of the few captains in the current game saddled with the pressure of contributing with bat and ball. But he's fine with that. "It's my role to deliver as a bowler, but also to try and chip in other ways," he said. Rankled by his batting stats in Tests, he went back to the nets and slogged; the result was a string of consistent scores that upped his average. "I think five or six years ago I was pretty embarrassed about my Test batting record. I wanted to rectify it," he said. "I enjoy it and take a lot of fun out of batting in the middle order and being successful at it. I have to select and lead the team and the runs I contribute are a bonus."

Ah yes, selection. After the radical developments of last Sunday, Vettori has become the most powerful captain around. Martin Crowe has expressed concern Vettori will suffer burnout in his new role, but the man himself didn't see it that way. "It's a role that I've been performing anyway, so I don't think it adds to my workload," he said. "I have to deliver my thoughts and argue them and they'll have a lot more merit. I'm looking forward to it."

The man ahead of him on New Zealand's bowling list, Sir Richard Hadlee, with 431 wickets, was a workhorse who lifted his side to unprecedented feats in Test cricket and had a knighthood bestowed upon him for services to the game. Asked in England last summer if 432 was an ambition, Vettori reckoned that going at his current rate he'd have to play 130 or 140 Tests and that he had other things he wanted to tick first.

He's ticked a massive one, and undoubtedly wants to tick a drawn series over the next four days. Maybe this time he will find a helping hand.

Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo