October 12, 2009

Small pool, big debate

David Leggat
There might not be big, glaring omissions, but there was enough argument to suggest enough top-quality talent in the country

So no Ricky Ponting for Australia, no Herbert Sutcliffe among England's chosen ones.

Far smaller playing numbers mean liberties such as these are not available to those choosing New Zealand's finest Test XI, although there were several points of conjecture among the judging panel, and enough contestable selections to argue that New Zealand has produced its share of top-quality cricketers. Heads were certainly scratched among the panelists.

New Zealand cricket has long had an all-hands-to-the-pump philosophy, combined with a relish of pricking egos and tripping up those with expectations of an easy ride. That has enabled it to punch well above its weight, albeit after a trying start, for much of its Test life.

Of the 37 nominees, 23 gathered at least one vote; just three players got an unanimous verdict - Glenn Turner, Martin Crowe and Sir Richard Hadlee. The marvellous Bert Sutcliffe? Nine votes. So too for John R Reid, the most dominant figure in the New Zealand game for over a decade, and current captain Daniel Vettori.

The final XI comprises two players whose best work took place before the Second World War (Stewie Dempster and Jack Cowie), two from the present team (Vettori and Shane Bond), four from the 1980s - when New Zealand, unbeaten at home for 10 years, enjoyed a golden period with a collection of strong-willed characters (Turner, Crowe, Hadlee and Ian Smith), and four from the 1949 team that set high standards in squaring a four-Test series in England (Sutcliffe, Reid, Cowie and Martin Donnelly).

Turner's selection was easy. A hundred first-class centuries, a brace of them to steer New Zealand to their first Test win over Australia, 1000 runs before May in the 1973 season, all speak of his class. A man with a perfectionist's touch, combined with a remorselessness about his batting, this supreme technician reinvented himself as a free-scoring one-day batsman with an eye for innovation.

Those who saw Dempster bat are long gone, but there are occasions when numbers and legend can be persuasive bedfellows. Ten tests, a 65.72 average, New Zealand's first Test century-maker, and still part-owner of the country's third-highest partnership and the highest opening stand against England, 276 with Jack Mills in 1930. Oh yes, and a Wisden player of the year in 1932.

John Wright and Mark Richardson, doughty scrappers, and Sutcliffe all won support; Sutcliffe in two categories. His numbers were superior as an opener, but a place had to be found, and so it is at No. 3. At a time when Australians insisted Neil Harvey was the game's peerless left-hand batsman, there was, in a small nearby corner of the world, a core of folk who did, and still, forcefully disagree. Opportunities beckoned far less often for the golden-haired Sutcliffe. There is film of him batting, notably in the subcontinent in 1955-56, and it reveals classic strokes and quick feet.

Crowe strove for perfection, and at times got desperately close. His 188 against Australia in Brisbane was central to probably the country's finest all-round Test performance. At his best he had a dismissive quality at the crease and could make batting look easy.

New Zealand cricket has long had an all-hands-to-the-pump philosophy, combined with a relish of pricking egos and tripping up those with expectations of an easy ride. That has enabled it to punch well above its weight, albeit after a trying start, for much of its Test life

Donnelly spent most of his career in England, where he was a prolific player for Oxford University; scored what remains the only double-hundred for New Zealand at Lord's, in 1949, during a series he averaged 77 in; hit 162 for the Gentlemen against the Players; and was a Wisden Player of the Year in 1947, when he was lauded as the world's best left-hand batsman. Donnelly only played seven Tests, but as with Dempster his fame was achieved from afar.

Stephen Fleming, an elegant left-hand batsman and fine captain, and Andrew Jones, a hard-minded character who averaged 44.27, had their supporters.

New Zealand cricket has yet to produce a more forceful personality than Reid. There were times he carried the national side almost alone, capable of ferocity with the bat, an aggressive medium-pacer and a fine fielder. He would have eaten up the one-day game. Reid captained New Zealand to their first three Test wins, led the World XI against England, and in between was a colossus in South Africa in 1961-62. Chris Cairns and Bruce Taylor had their roles, but neither came close to the man who was New Zealand cricket for years.

Ian Smith was an overwhelming choice as wicketkeeper, part of the celebrated 1980s troupe. Adam Parore was a skilled successor, Brendon McCullum the boisterous man of the moment.

Vettori had a lock on the spinning spot, a player whose mild appearance disguises a steely determination. Which brings us to the most contentious selection. Who to partner Hadlee? Cowie and Bond it is.

Hadlee first. The tree-lined Hagley Oval in Christchurch, among the most scenic cricket spots in the country, had its usual half-dozen senior and second-grade club games in full swing on Saturday, November 9, 1985. Australia had started the second day of the Brisbane Test at 146 for 4, all to Hadlee. Someone shouted out, "He's got six". Shortly after, "He's got seven", and then "He's got eight!" Games ground to a halt as the transistors were turned up around the Oval. Enough said.

Bond provides the genuine speed and a fine average, alongside Cowie, nicknamed "Bull", a tough competitor who bowled with skill and heart, taking 45 wickets at 21.53 in his nine Tests. How good was he? "Had he been an Australian he might have been termed a wonder of the age," wrote Wisden editor Wilfred Brookes.

David Leggat is chief cricket writer and chief sports reporter of the New Zealand Herald

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • love on October 14, 2009, 17:18 GMT

    So much discussion going on , and correctly so , to choose between Cairns and Reid. But why this fetish to choose one spinner at all cost ? Why can't Chris Cairns be chosen over Vettori? Yes this will make the team pace heavy but what is the probelm there? I bet any of India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka will fear Cairns more than Vettori, even on subcontinent wickets. And Cairns was a big match winner, he could turn any match on its head. I just hope they don't make as choose a spinner for West Indies forcing us to drop one better fast bowler

  • Richard on October 14, 2009, 5:02 GMT

    bravo mican! may i just add that anyone who dismisses war-time champions such as dempster & donnelly, but includes fleming (who had 189 test batting opportunities but scored only nine centuries) is thinking just as lightly...

  • mike on October 13, 2009, 23:37 GMT

    This is funny. Despite playing all their tests against 2 of the best sides of their generation some here want to exclude some champions bcos they've played 10 tests or less. As if NZ's ltd test program, WWII and the embargo on selecting players who made a living in Eng is their fault. What they should've done was play 17 tests, breakdown most of the time and distort their figures plundering minnows like BD, Zim and the worst WI team of that association's otherwise proud history...like Shane Bond. Its risible. Look. If anyone here has a problem with Dempster, Donnelly and Cowie but give Bond a tick then you're not thinking too hard are you.

  • Andrew on October 13, 2009, 20:06 GMT

    kpisthebest et al, I love watching Shane Bond and he would be in my NZ all-time ODI side, but he has never shown brilliance at test level. If you take out the minnows, his average is mediocre at best. You are picking him on potential or that he troubled a few players. Shane O'Connor also troubled Steve Waugh and actually yorked him. Lara and Tendulkar have been troubled by many a bowler, particularly Lara late in his career being susceptible early on. That is not to say they are not greats, simply that every batsmen has good runs of form and bad, has great innings and makes mistakes every now and then. How can you automatically conclude that Bond is the no 2 bowler without even comparing him to Cowie? Aren't you biased having watched one and not the other??

    Dempter and Donnelly were rated world class at their time. Wright and Fleming were solid players but never rated with the world's best. Comparisons to Sinclair are illogical. Sinclair always looked unsound.

  • B. on October 13, 2009, 19:23 GMT

    McCullum vs Smith one more time: McCullum's average is 31.70, Smith's is 25.56. Fine, McCullum's big scores were on flat tracks or against weak opposition. Take out his three centuries and he averages 27.73: still more than Smith (or Parore, or Wadsworth). And Smith's average is inflated by his 173. Behind the stumps, Smith made fewer mistakes but McCullum seems to have better range (as they say in baseball): McCullum has a higher dismissals per innings rate despite not having Hadlee around. More concretely, McCullum is comfortable standing up to the stumps for the likes of Kyle Mills, while as far as I remember (it's been a while, so correct me if I'm wrong), Smith didn't stand up to Chatfield. Parore has an argument, since he had range and consistency, but I'll take the runs on the board from McCullum.

  • saif on October 13, 2009, 18:50 GMT

    Oh one more thing, this teams biggest weakness is its spin bowling. If you look at every other team, there are fantastic spinners who have the stats to prove their greatness. Guys, vettori has always had a major problem with picking up wickets, his average has ballooned over the few years and apart from bangladesh and zimbabwe, his stats are horrible. He's not that great, but sadly he has to be on the team because there hasn't been anyone better.

  • saif on October 13, 2009, 18:44 GMT

    Guys, McCullum is NOT that good a batsmen. He is technically flawed and always gets out to rash shots. In 46 tests, he averages 31, take out his hundreds against bangladesh and zimbabwe and he will average much less. Ian smith was much better with the gloves and the strength of this lineup is its batting as its basically got three allrounders in it. McCullum never faced bowlers in the nineties like the two W's, Donald, Ambrose, let alone the greats from england from the 1940's. Also im getting the feeling that the selection panel of these lists are bias towards the good old days. Guys, andrew jones should have walked into this team, but donnelly got the nod. Has anyone actually seen him play over 70 years ago? all we have to rate him is his stats and comments from old journals.

  • Peter on October 13, 2009, 9:09 GMT

    Reid and Vettori appear to have received more support from the judges than they deserve. Reid averaged 25 with the bat in home Tests and 24 in England. He never faced Australia. In all Tests he took fewer than one and a half wickets per match. These are not the figures of a top specialist batsman or genuine international all-rounder. Vettori's wickets cost 54 runs apiece against India, 63 against South Africa and 100 against Pakistan. Three teams who won't mind facing him. An appealing alternative slow bowling option who didn't make the shortlist is long-forgotten off-spinner Alec Downes from Otago. Between 1888 and 1914 he took 311 first-class wickets at 14 apiece in only 51 games. That's over six wickets per match, a very rare achievement by a bowler from any country. One thing statistics don't reveal is that New Zealand's All-Time team will be among the finest fielding units.

  • Barath on October 13, 2009, 7:10 GMT

    Aglubb 002,

    I saw that series between Aus and NZ when Bond averaged 96. It has been Bond's first and only test series and Aus.

    So he has played in only 3 tests against Aus.

    He bowled quick in that series but lacked experience still he troubled a certain Steve Waugh at Hobart with extreme pace and showed that he has huge potential.

    He has also troubled players like Lara and Tendulkar and that is not bad!

    17 tests are enough for me to say that Bond is NZ'S second best bowler behind Hadlee.

    Anyone who could swing it at good pace and still has good enough control like Shane Bond is very good indeed!

  • Supratik on October 13, 2009, 5:15 GMT

    I have been following the debate on the NZXI with amusement. I am not a Kiwi so if I may throw in my dispassionate comments on the list. Its strange that an all time XI consists of 3 players who played 10 tests or less. No other all time XI will consist of that, except for Barry Richards in SA XI. Then there is an incredible debate on Cairns vs Reid and Smith vs McCullum. Having seen the latter two, there is no doubt that Smith was the better keeper and had a bull-dog spirit as a batsman, ODIs McCullum, maybe. Between Reid and Cairns I guess Reid was the father figure of NZ cricket in the 50s so its only fair to include him. Stats is not the only criteria. But 2 batsmen with 10 & 9 tests and 2 & 1 tons respectively? I see that no one is debating on Bevan Congdon a 60s-70s stalwart. Dempster & Donnelly may have been very talented/flamboyant as batsmen, but to ignore Congdon is a tad unfair. The list only goes to show that NZ has been a mediocre team through out.

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