'I love Test cricket, but I'm also a realist'
New Zealand have always been a promising side but have failed to be in the top bracket. Why do you think they remain on the fringes?
We have always been a competitive one-day side. In Test cricket we seem to struggle to put big runs on the board consistently for two innings. We have always bowled pretty well but it is the runs factor in the last few years that has us a little bit inconsistent in Test cricket. The other factor is, we have lost players through the years to injuries, and because we don't have the depth, it hits us harder than some other teams.
Could it also be because cricket is not the primary sport in New Zealand, and the long shadow of rugby probably hurts the development of players?
Look, cricket is the No. 2 sport. Previously there were a lot of rugby players who were good cricket players as well, so they had to make a choice. But with the IPL around, there is a real career in cricket, so that may change in the future. It comes in waves. Early in the 2000s we climbed to No. 3 in Test rankings, when we had an experienced team mixed with some good young players. At the moment we are sort of more an inexperienced team. But hopefully in the next five years we can push our way back up.
What about the money? Is it appealing enough for a youngster to think of cricket as a future career?
It is definitely not about the money. It is just pure numbers. Cricket is still a hugely popular game, but we have so few players that we are not going to have a massive amount of outstanding players come through. But we still are a very talented side. We just lack that ability to play at the top level: mainly, in first-class cricket we just don't get to face good fast bowling or we are not exposed to guys like Murali [Mutiah Muralitharan] or Harbhajan [Singh]. So when you make the step up to Test cricket, all of a sudden you are exposed to that sort of bowling and it takes our players a little bit of time to adjust. It will take at least two or three years of playing Tests for them to feel comfortable to face that level of bowling.
Do you think New Zealand cricket is being marginalised by the higher powers?
I don't think so. If we are not playing good Test cricket then people are not going to come to watch us. So it is up to us as a team to perform, and if we beat teams then people will come. It is harder for us because our season is limited by our weather. We spend a lot of time training indoors, and we don't get outdoors till late [in the season], which makes it bloody tough for our players. And our season is limited, where we have about four months to play at home. So I don't think we are being marginalised. It is just a product where people want to see just the best teams play the best teams and we are not one of the best teams in Tests at the moment.
Teams still take us seriously, but I can't say for certain a particular timeframe. We have some definite talent there in [Ross] Taylor, [Martin] Guptill. Obviously [Daniel] Vettori is such a key player and we can't afford to lose him. There is a lot on his shoulders, so it is going to be tough.
Is there too much on his plate? He is the captain, a virtual coach, and the best player in the team.
Mark Greatbatch's inclusion as a coach has relieved him somewhat. But that is what Dan wants to do - to lead from the front and set an example, which is what he does on and off the field. I hope he doesn't put too much on his shoulders, but he seems to be handling it okay at the moment. He is such a good player, but I still worry about him.
You mentioned a couple of young talents already. Who are the other players who are in a position to step up and share the leadership with Vettori?
Those two, and [Brendon] McCullum is obviously a senior player now. Our bowling is little bit thin and [Tim] Southee is our biggest talent. We forget he is only 21 and already has ups and downs, but I definitely like the attitude with which he plays. There is going to be a lot put on his shoulders in the next two years. You still might not see the best of him for another four or five years, but his skills and attitude make him a fine player. Then we have got Kane Williamson, who is a seriously talented batsman. Hopefully these guys will get the opportunities.
Apart from Southee, who do you think is ready to be your successor?
There aren't many quick bowlers coming around. There are a couple of guys in our Under-19 team who are good, but again, I don't think bowlers come into their prime till they are 24-25. We are a little bit thin on fast bowlers and don't have an out-and-out fast bowler in domestic cricket, except Andy McKay.
Do you see yourself moving into a mentor's role to look after the young bowlers?
That is my plan, to move into coaching once I finish playing. I have got to get my Level 3 coaching certificate, and that is where I see myself - assisting the young guys at the domestic level.
How difficult was it to retire from Test cricket?
It was tough. I love Test cricket and always felt I was a Test bowler first and foremost. Test cricket is about getting people out and that's what I do: I got people out. A lot of goals I wanted to achieve were built around Test cricket, but I am also a realist. I realised every time I played four- or five-day cricket, I broke if I played few games on the bounce. It is just the way I played: I find it difficult to hold back. I just go hard. It hurt me. But I wanted to keep playing. I have had enough injuries. I am sick and tired of being in rehab, and if I did that one more time I would've been probably finished. I wanted to finish playing rather than get injured and fall by the side.
Did you ever keep count of the injuries?
No. Because I know how many times I've had to come back and do the hard work to get back on the park. The most frustrating thing was, a lot of times I've thought: "This is it, I am going to go on a real good run here" and I have got back to playing my absolute best cricket and then there has been an injury.
What advice would you give youngsters coming out of injury?
You have to manage yourself well. I still see it now when I play with guys who are injured and they want to be back for a game that is, say, six weeks down the line. You've just got to come back when you are fully fit. Too many people - and I have made the mistake in the past - sometimes rush back to make a tour or a series even when they are not a 100% fit. You are better off taking it step by step; do your rehab properly, get yourself back in the condition you need to be in, build your bowling up, and then get ready at the right time.
Are you saying you made that mistake yourself? Can you give us an example?
I was coming from a back injury - I had fractured it twice - to the England tour in 2004. Even if I had done the rehab, I had played only one game before the tour, bowling just 10 overs. Once in England, I played a couple of first-class games and I broke my back again. I just wasn't ready for it. It is hard to say, "Look, I'm not ready." I wouldn't make that mistake again now.
Eighty-seven Test wickets - so close to the 100 mark. It must have crossed your mind many times before you decided to quit?
I wanted to try and get to 150 Test wickets. That is what I planned when I came back the last time. I wanted to just keep trying. And that was the hardest thing. My motivation to play Test cricket always was to get 50 runs with the bat and take 150 Test wickets. When I came back against Pakistan, I felt I had the opportunity once again to achieve those goals, and then, bang, I got injured. It was demoralising.
Would you make a comeback?
Test cricket? No chance. Not the way I feel right now.
What is the most difficult thing about fast bowling?
It is bowling when you are sore and uncomfortable, especially in today's game, when you are bowling day in and day out. The hardest thing about bowling is, you know you are going to get hurt at some point. Injury is inevitable. You are just doing everything to stop it. Some guys last longer than others, but sometimes when you get that injury, you tend to get injured again and again.
Steve Waugh reckons there is too much diagnosis of players now. According to him that is adding to the problem rather than resolving. How do you see this?
You always play with niggles. As a player, I know what is sore, what is a niggle and what could blow into something big. Most bowlers want clarity. It is the fear of the unknown: "I am going to go into a game here. There is something not quite right. I don't know what it is." I'd rather know what it is. So if I get a scan, at least I know it is not a tear. It is a professional sport. There is a lot more at stake. The more information you get, the better it is, because at least then I am making an informed decision.
Did you ever find the answer to why you were getting injured so often?
Probably, it was just because of the way I bowled. I struggled to bowl within myself. A lot of bowlers bowl at 90%. I always bowled as hard I could. The thing that hurt me the most was, I was really lazy in my late teens. Because of that, I got a lot of back problems. So I missed a lot of years from 17 to 23. I never had a good base for bowling. I just lacked it. I went away from cricket, and then I am back, and all of a sudden bowling proper fast. I played a little bit of cricket and I was in the New Zealand team suddenly. I went from a little bit of cricket to international cricket, where I am bowling fast. That catch-up was too much. The difference in intensity at domestic and international levels is massive and people don't appreciate how big it is. I just played with that intensity and it took its toll.
Incidentally, you made your international debut because Dion Nash got injured, didn't you?
Yes, I did. I got my chance on an A tour because Scott Styris got injured, and then I got my international chance because Nash and [Shayne] O'Connor got injured in Australia. A lot of players have come in because of someone else's misfortunes.
Do you think the lack of successors plays a role in injuries to fast bowlers?
Yes. For example, if a series is on the line with the score at 1-1, the team doesn't want to risk resting the strike bowler.
Did you consider changing into a line-and-length bowler to prolong your career? Something even someone like Richard Hadlee did.
No, never. People asked me why I didn't ever slow down. But I always saw my value to the team as a strike bowler, Olympic bowler. I give the results because I bowl the way I do. People said I could bowl at 90%. Sure, I have had injures, but I feel I have been a pretty successful bowler the way I am, so why would I change? I'd rather have a shorter career and be successful than stretch it out and let my performance drop.
Is there anything that can be done to preserve fast bowlers?
I worry that fast bowlers are going to withdraw from Test cricket early to play limited-overs cricket. Most fast bowlers break down while playing the longer form, since the ability to rest and rotate is always tough. Bowlers are almost going to be like pitchers, where you play a game and sit out the next, because of the amount of cricket played these days. Australia are lucky because they win more than they lose. They seem to rotate bowlers even during series and still win. People tend to forget they are resting and rotating and giving guys a week off here and there. A lot of the other teams, because they are struggling to win 50-50, are just playing their best team all the time, and they suffer when there are injuries.
Is Twenty20 a safer alternative?
Definitely, because it is not day-in-day-out stuff. You know you can go hard for four overs without getting yourself to the point of physical exhaustion even if you happen to bowl again. You are not risking injury like you would when bowling eight- to nine-over spells, which sometimes can be dangerous. In Twenty20, it is much easier.
What do you think will be the long-term impact of the IPL on New Zealand cricket?
The more players we can get exposed to play the IPL, the better it would be for our cricket. Playing in subcontinental conditions, in front of big crowds, against quality spinners under pressure, and also alongside other international players, will teach them various things. It can only mean good for our players.
You took up the ICL offer because the board felt they wanted to move on. Did you feel let down by New Zealand Cricket?
I was. I had a clearance to go and play. It was sad at the time. But I understood the reasons behind the board's decision. Still, it didn't make it easy. But it doesn't bother me anymore. I am happy to be back.
Are Twenty20 leagues a good retirement option for fast bowlers?
I don't look at it as a retirement option. I couldn't retire from international cricket and just play. My motivation comes from achieving stuff for New Zealand. The money is great but you don't play for the money. You play to win, I suppose.
Would you say you underachieved, given your talent, or overachieved despite the injuries?
Statistically, I have overachieved. I have had a stunted career because of the injuries. It gives me a lot of satisfaction that in my last series I bowled at 150kph in a couple of games, despite all the screws and the shit in my back, which is stiff as a board. I'm nearly 35, and to come out and bowl as quick as that gives me satisfaction. I am not fighting it any more. I am enjoying it. I used to be pretty intense and wound up even if I missed a practice session. I am a more relaxed player after my comeback.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo