August 28, 2012

New Zealand need to woo their fans back

Spineless performances will have made their supporters feel jaded. To make them care once again, some of New Zealand's players will need to play exceptionally

There is one thing worse than fans being frustrated by the New Zealand team's capitulations to South Africa, West Indies and India since February. It's their apathy.

The "couldn't care less" curtains appear to have been drawn on most cricketing matters in New Zealand of late. Much of the evidence is anecdotal but will presumably be reflected in statistics like television viewer numbers and website hits, if flaky performances like the innings-and-115-run loss in Hyderabad pervade further results.

Since South Africa's arrival in February, New Zealand have lost four out of their last six Tests, seven out of eight one-dayers and four out of five Twenty20s. Hopes of leaping over West Indies in the ranking tables were extinguished. The might of India now towers over the New Zealand agenda.

The days are gone when groups of like-minded cricket fans could debate for hours the merits of New Zealand tactics, strategy and personnel, and their chances of success or failure. Cricket was the indisputable summer game. Few such debates ignite these days. There was a fleeting glimpse after New Zealand's Test victory in Hobart last year but the insurance of public goodwill from that has long been spent.

Compounding this apparent lack of cricketing interest has been New Zealand's Olympic success in London. Kiwi sports fans revelled in a haul of 13 medals (six gold, two silver, five bronze), equalling the country's best cumulative effort at the Games. Rowers, sailors, cyclists, horse riders, a shot putter and a kayaker rose to prominence by virtue of their dedication to excellence. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the country's best cricketers reverted to anonymity as they floundered in the Caribbean.

The whole Olympic escapade hinted at a shifting of the guard in the New Zealand summer game, albeit momentarily. Gold medals aside, there is little chance of any sport usurping cricket because of the incomes that can be derived from bat and ball in the modern T20 world. Top rowers now make a decent living from their Olympic and world championship successes but medals cannot match the lure of six- and seven-figure annual sums for aspiring young athletes.

Yet a catalyst has to be found to give New Zealand's cricket a fillip on the international stage. Winston Churchill once said: "It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required." New Zealand's current situation mirrors that. No one doubts the players are doing their best but someone needs to dredge something special from their mental core to reverse the submissive trend.

In Hyderabad, Brendon McCullum's alleged inside edge on to his pad which was given lbw is still no excuse for the team losing their last nine wickets for 66 runs. It is a travesty the DRS was not in place but that cannot expunge the lack of application in twin sub 165-run scores. Ross Taylor's reference to the team's inability to play quality spin is hardly a mitigating factor. R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha took 18 of the 20 wickets in the Test but so much cricket is played on the subcontinent these days that playing spin forms a mandatory part of any genuine international player's batting armoury.

The loss has highlighted the need for someone to exceed expectations. Kane Williamson is the obvious candidate, given his current form - his 32 and 52 in the first Test formed 26% of New Zealand's runs - and proven ability to weather bowling tormentors. That was demonstrated when he secured a draw with a century in Wellington against South Africa in March. Williamson will need partners to produce anywhere near what is required to challenge India in the second Test in Bangalore. Support on the bowling front would also help so batsmen are not daunted by a number like India's 438 sneering from the scoreboard.

Ardent supporters will be pleading the New Zealanders can seek redemption; the more fickle will have already flicked channels to domestic rugby or perhaps the latest in Olympic sport. New Zealand's cricketers have to begin winning them back.

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday