'I put pressure on myself to lead from the front'
New Zealand's captain will mark his 100th Test match when he steps out onto Seddon Park in Hamilton on March 27 to face Ricky Ponting's Australia side - his 99th in New Zealand colours, alongside an appearance for the ICC World XI in 2005. Vettori now ranks as New Zealand's second highest-capped Test player, behind Stephen Fleming, the captain he succeeded in 2007. It's been a season of milestones for the affable Vettori, renowned as one of the game's most astute captains. Last August he brought up 300 Test wickets - making him just the eighth player to achieve the double of 3000 runs and 300 wickets in Tests. On the eve of his latest Test hundred, he talks about his hurried entry into the Test arena, his career highlights and his experiences as captain, and looks ahead at New Zealand's future Test prospects.
You made your Test debut against England in 1997 in Wellington. What do you remember about the match?
I was most nervous about the batting. I was batting at No. 11 and I was anxious about getting in there and finding out how much of a step up it would be from what I was used to. I was confident about my bowling because I was bowling reasonably well, but the thing that was making me nervous was how I would go with the bat. In the end I got a couple of not-outs. I was pretty happy with my bowling performance, and got 2 for 98 off 34 overs. It was a role I was used to playing, and Lee Germon, who was captain at the time, gave me a lot of latitude to set my own fields, and listened to me about what I wanted to do. Unfortunately I only bowled one innings because we were convincingly beaten. So it was a tough baptism in terms of where we were as a team, but I felt pretty good about my own bowling performance.
At 18 you were the youngest New Zealand Test player, and you had also barely made your first-class debut. Were you surprised at the call-up?
Yes, very surprised. I had played one game for Northern Districts, against the touring England side, and then one game against Central Districts. I had done all right in both, but it certainly wasn't in my mind that I'd be on my way to being selected for New Zealand in the near future. I obviously hoped it would happen but it was something I thought would be five, six or more years away. Steve Rixon was coach at the time and he and all the selectors came and watched the game in Hamilton when I played against England, and I bowled relatively well there. I think they were aware that New Zealand's spin bowling stocks weren't as healthy as they might have liked at the time, so they thought, why not take a chance on a young guy?
That early start has meant you've done most of your learning of the game on the international stage. How has that shaped you as a cricketer?
I think that's probably a common characteristic with many New Zealand cricketers. A lot of us have learnt the game at the international level, because you come into the game quite young. That's largely because in New Zealand we haven't had a huge depth of talent, so if you stand out in domestic cricket you're more likely to get a chance to step up. Playing the majority of my cricket at international level has forced me to learn and understand what I need to do more quickly than if I'd had to learn at first-class level. It's also exposed me to the very best opposition right from day one of my career. At that level you know where you stand pretty quickly and if you don't learn in that environment then you get found out in short order.
What do you look back on as the high points of those first 100 Tests?
My first Test hundred, 137 not out against Pakistan in Hamilton in 2003, is something I'll always remember. It's something I had always aspired to getting, but I probably wasn't batting all that well, although I had scored a 90 and a handful of fifties up to that point. So to tick that one off, I think gave me confidence that I could become a decent batsman at international level.
As a bowler, taking seven wickets against Australia in the first Test at Eden Park in 2000 was something I'll always treasure. It was a 12-wicket match haul too - 5 for 62 in the first and 7 for 87 in the second, against a pretty handy line-up. But unfortunately it was in a losing cause, with Shane Warne bowling us out in our run-chase. Taking wickets in a second innings towards a victory has always been important to me, and important for any spinner, but it's something I probably haven't done as much as I would have liked.
From a team perspective, the 1999 series in England, where we managed to win a Test series there for the first time was pretty special. We were proud to be part of such a historic achievement for New Zealand, and I think that was probably the start of one of the best New Zealand sides that I've been part of during my Test career to date. Over the next few years, in the early 2000s, was when we were at our best and most consistent as a Test unit.
You always see consistency when we're at our best. We had a strong one-day team going away to the one-day World Cups in 2003 and 2007 - people expected us to do well in those two campaigns, there was a great anticipation about them. Unfortunately it didn't quite pan out, but I think making the semi-finals was a pretty good achievement for a New Zealand team.
How has your own game changed over the span of your Test career?
Well, I still consider myself a bowler first. I want to be a strike bowler and be the guy you turn to when you need to take wickets. I try to see myself like that as captain. But my bowling game hasn't changed a lot over the years. I've always seen subtle variation as being the key to my success, using flight and pace rather than turn. Growing up in New Zealand there were hardly any spin bowlers going around, and the wickets are not really conducive to bowling spin, so I suppose succeeding as a spin bowler in New Zealand is another proud achievement.
In the early part of my career I had to make adjustments to my technique because of the problems I had with stress fractures in the back. All injuries are a low point. When you're out of the game there's a frustration that comes in and you wonder whether you can get back to where you were. And when they're serious injuries you're remodelling your action and changing your technique, and that becomes a concern. But I am pleased I was able to fight back from injury.
Then in the last five or six years I've been able to add batting to that repertoire, and being able to be a constant contributor, batting at No. 8 or 6, is something that's excited me, and now hopefully I'm a genuine allrounder who can contribute with both equally.
Was there a particular time when you decided to focus on your batting? Was that first Test century a turning point?
It probably happened a bit before then. I had been a bit embarrassed about my own personal batting statistics for a while. I knew I was better than that, and really worked on a change of mental attitude going into an innings, as well as a lot more hard work in the nets. There have been people I've talked to along the way, but like most people who try and succeed, it's about getting the best out of yourself, and hopefully I've worked hard enough to achieve that. It's certainly borne results and the last five or six years have been really good for me from a batting perspective, and I've been able to force my way into team almost as a batsman these days.
In recent times you've often been called on for rearguard actions and rescue efforts with the bat. Has that been a frustration for you?
I don't look at it like that. I look at it as an opportunity to bat. Every time you get a chance to bat you want to score runs, so regardless of the situation the approach is the same. It doesn't matter whether you come in at 100 for 6 or 400 for 6, you've got to score runs. I just try to play a consistent game - a busy, aggressive game - and it really doesn't change, no matter what the situation of the game is.
Tell us about the players you admire on the international scene today.
I really enjoy watching Harbhajan Singh bowl. I think he's my favourite bowler to watch in world cricket. I admire his skills and his repertoire, and he's someone I always try to learn from whenever I see him bowl.
And I've talked before about my respect for bowlers like Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. Over the years I have really enjoyed observing and learning from them.
On the batting side, Rahul Dravid has always been difficult for me as a bowler. He's just exceptionally hard to get out. He's a gifted player of spin, he gets forward and back so easily, and that makes it incredibly difficult to work out a length to him. I think as a spin bowler, the key is to find a length that's going to test a batsman, and I've always found that length incredibly difficult against Rahul.
You have been captain of the New Zealand Test side since you took over from Stephen Fleming in 2007. How has that changed your approach to your own game?
I hope it's improved it. I think my record's improved, and I've always said that as captain I wanted to lead with performance, and everything else would follow from there. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to lead from the front with runs and wickets in all forms of the game. All the good captains talk about being able to clear your mind of the captaincy when you need to do the thing that's most important at the time - whether that's batting or bowling. I firmly believe that it's your own performance on the park that's important for a captain. A lot of the rest of captaincy can be overrated. The good captains are the ones that perform and have winning teams, and your own performance is going to contribute to a winning side, so that's how I try to approach it.
Your captaincy has coincided with a rebuilding phase for New Zealand after the loss of so many experienced players. Has that made the job more difficult?
No. In fact it's been rewarding, seeing a number of young guys coming through and succeeding. The likes of Ross Taylor, Martin Guptill and Brendon McCullum are all proving to be exceptionally good all-round cricketers. That has been really satisfying and we've just got to put that into results more regularly. Keeping players injury-free and consistent is the biggest challenge at the moment as captain. But we're getting a good team on the park and we have depth that is going to serve us well.
There are some very good players coming through in the domestic competitions, and better opportunities today for players to make the transition from domestic to international cricket. The A tours have gone a long way towards that, and guys who have been through those tours recently talk about how it's made a difference in terms of the step up. Constantly getting that ability to play at the second tier is going to help a lot of our guys with the jump towards international cricket. Coupled with some very good international players coming through at the moment, that bodes well for a successful Test future.
The global game has changed considerably since 1997, especially with the explosion in popularity of the Twenty20 format. Do you see a strong future for Test cricket?
Personally I do. I believe Test matches can still be a prominent part of world cricket. We now have three formats of the game and people can enjoy whichever format they prefer. Most fans enjoy one form of the game or another, and we're lucky that we can offer them three. Test cricket still rates highly with me. I grew up on Tests, watching the likes of Sir Richard Hadlee, so I know that I'll always be judged on my Test record and that is important to me.
You have indicated you will step down from captaincy after 2011 World Cup. Is that still the plan?
Yes, I think four years is long enough, and hopefully I make it that far. I certainly hope there are plenty more Tests in me, though. I want to play for a few more years yet, but it's dependent on form and fitness. We'll see how things go. But I'm enjoying my cricket, so hopefully it can remain that way. There's also Stephen Fleming's record of 111 Test caps for New Zealand coming up, which shouldn't be too far away. To overtake a legend in New Zealand cricket will be another memorable milestone. Statistics and milestones are an important motivating factor for me. It's one of the reasons I play the game, for personal success and also for winning. I think they go hand in hand and if I continue picking up milestones hopefully they go a long way towards helping the team win.
Stephen Hill is a freelance writer and media consultant, and a former New Zealand Cricket media manager