September 13, 2012

'New Zealand batsmen don't treasure their wickets enough'

Compared to other international batsmen, New Zealand's struggle to make their starts count

A seeming lack of concentration while batting has been glaringly obvious from New Zealand's losses in their last three series, against South Africa, West Indies and India. New Zealand's batsmen have no problem getting starts - their scorecards teem with them - but the ability to progress to half-centuries and centuries, the benchmark for any competitive Test total, has been lacking.

In seven Tests in those last three series, New Zealand have lost five and drawn the remaining two. They have had 12 completed innings, two of those over 300. Their batsmen scored two centuries and 12 half-centuries (a conversion rate of 14%). Compare that with their opposition, who scored ten centuries and 17 fifties - a conversion rate of 37%. Perhaps the most striking statistic is the New Zealand batsmen's 42 individual scores between 20 and 49. There is a serious blockage in their run-scoring pipe.

There are various theories about why that is happening. Perhaps it is the exponential growth of T20 cricket and the desire for instant run-scoring gratification; perhaps it is a lack of first-class bowling venom at home which makes international teams harder to face; perhaps a more in-depth psychological analysis is required as to why wickets are given away cheaply at Test level.

Glenn Turner, the former New Zealand captain, believes the problem lies at the simpler end of the scale. As the only New Zealand batsman to have scored a century of first-class centuries (103), he is qualified to comment on matters of converting starts to big scores. He also scored them on some of New Zealand's most illustrious cricketing occasions, like when they beat Australia for the first time, in 1974.

"One problem could be our senior players feel all they have to do is be better than other New Zealanders. They're comfortable with selection rather than being the best they can be," Turner says. "It's easy to say things like, 'We don't have the same numbers to compete', but as a player you've still got to believe you can get more out of yourself. Wickets tend to not be treasured enough.

"When I played I used a negative to get a positive response. I'd think of how bad it felt to get a low score so I needed to cash in now. That's what drove me.

Conversion rates in New Zealand's Test series in 2012
Team 50s 100s Conversion rate % Matches won
New Zealand 2 2 50 1
Zimbabwe 1 0 0 0
New Zealand 4 1 20 0
South Africa 7 5 42 1
New Zealand 5 0 0 0
West Indies 5 3 38 2
New Zealand 3 1 25 0
India 5 2 29 1

"You can talk to psychologists, look at the positives and talk things out of your system, but I think we have enough talkfests as it is. It should be a case of shut up and get the job done. Players have to work out what motivates them most. It's not something you can dictate or teach. Are they doing it for the cap or, if you like, 'king and country'? Are they doing it for family, for team-mates or for self-fulfilment? They just need to do whatever it takes to stimulate them."

The modern-day Test approach can assume gladiatorial proportions with macho posturing and verbal jousting used to expose weaknesses. Turner believes such on-field attitudes can be counter-productive.

"My approach was that I never played against anybody. I always played against myself. I didn't like getting into that competitive mindset of wanting to stuff your opponent. Also, as time went on and I played 400-plus first-class matches, I regularly asked, 'Why am I doing this?' Just to keep in a healthy frame of mind than anything.

"You could be playing against 15,000 to 20,000 people in a [English] Sunday League match and then two men and a dog in the first-class match on Monday. That could be quite a come-down, but that's when you ask yourself, 'Am I man or mouse?', 'Does it matter to me or not?' I was always motivated by the fact that if I went back to the pavilion after getting out cheaply and had to take my pads off, I'd be really annoyed. Sometimes I think players might need to remind themselves of the frustrations of failure. That's how consistency develops."

In the early part of his 33-Test career, top-order batsman Mathew Sinclair was an example of a player capable of turning starts into big scores. Each of his three centuries (made in his first 12 Tests) was a score of 150 or more. Sinclair is one of five Test batsmen to score a double-century on debut, and with his 214 coming against West Indies in the Boxing Day Test of 1999, he was once the answer to the trivia question: "Who had the highest Test average at the end of the 20th century?"

Sinclair says expectation is at the core of New Zealand's recent disappointments. "When I think back to my debut, there was no fear of failure. I was in control of my game and it was just me versus the bowler. I worked better in that simple state than trying to concentrate on the peripherals. However, self-belief was still important. There was a deep desire to prove I belonged. You saw it in Tim Southee during that Bangalore Test [on his way to 7 for 64]. He had good rhythm and a clear mind.

"It is quite hard at that level, dealing with failure. You need to feel like you have the support of your team-mates, but cricket remains an individualistic game based around a team. The fear of failure or losing can quickly enter your head. It's hard when you don't get instant gratification, and I think that is one reason cricket is moving towards shorter forms in New Zealand. There is less to lose and young players are aware of that. Consequently there is less emphasis on first-class cricket."

As Sinclair prepares for another season with Central Districts, he says a mental shift is required in the first-class game. "There is a magical perception around getting to three figures. I try to put that out of my mind and think about batting to infinity. Everyone wants a hundred but you can get so focused on it that you get stalled. It's just a figure.

"All batsmen have their way of building an innings, but I think you've got to avoid looking at an outcome. Often [like in the second innings in Bangalore when seven New Zealand batsmen were dismissed between 22 and 41] all the hard work is done. Those sorts of scores are part of the problem."

When you compare the fifty-to-century conversion rates of New Zealand's current batsmen with the team's former batsmen and today's top international players, a pattern emerges.

Conversion rates (ranked by top Test percentages)
Current New Zealand batsmen Tests 50s 100s Test conversion rate % 100s per match % First-class 50s First-class 100s First-class conversion rate %
Jesse Ryder 18 6 3 33 17 21  10 32
Ross Taylor 41 16 7 30 17 34 13 28
Kane Williamson 16 5 2 29 13 18 10 36
Brendon McCullum 68 23 6 21 9 38 11 22
Daniel Vettori 112 23 6 21 5 33 9 21
Martin Guptill 26 12 2 14 8 24 7 23

Former New Zealand batsmen                
Martin Crowe 77 18 17 49 22 80 71 47
Mathew Sinclair 33 4 3 43 9 66 34 34
John Wright 82 23 12 34 15 126 59 32
Glenn Turner 41 14 7 33 17 148 103 41
Mark Richardson 38 19 4 17 11 48 20 29
Stephen Fleming 111 46 9 16 8 93 35 27

Top current international batsmen                
Ashwell Prince 66 11 11 50 17 70 33 32
Michael Clarke 83 22 19 46 23 38 35 48
Sachin Tendulkar 190 65 51 44 27 111 78 41
Jacques Kallis 155 55 43 44 28 94 60 39
Kevin Pietersen 88 27 21 44 24 61 45 42
Kumar Sangakkara 111 39 30 43 27 63 39 38

Centuries are paramount, even if, as Sinclair says, they are used as a mental barrier.

At 49%, Martin Crowe's conversion rate is world-class in any era, topping even those of Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis. Hence, the halcyon days of New Zealand's Test success were during Crowe's pomp from the mid-80s to the early '90s. He was backed by the often underrated John Reid, who had the extraordinary Test conversion rate of 75% (six hundreds, two fifties, average of 46.28), which, albeit on a smaller scale, is better than Don Bradman's 69% (29 hundreds, 13 fifties). There were also Geoff Howarth (six hundreds, 11 fifties, CR 35%), John Wright (12 hundreds, 23 fifties, CR 34%) and later Andrew Jones (seven hundreds, 11 fifties, CR 39%) to bolster Crowe's era.

Jesse Ryder (33%) is the best converter amongst current New Zealanders, but given his self-imposed stand-down and no contract with New Zealand Cricket, it remains uncertain whether he will re-employ those skills.

Significantly, among the current best international converters, five of the top six Test nations are represented (Pakistan being the exception). None of the players involved has a conversion rate less than 43%. There is a chasm between New Zealand and international conversion rates.

However, there does not seem to be a significant difference in conversion rates between the various domestic competitions. In the past five years New Zealand's rates have swung between 21% (1.2 centuries per match in 2010-11) and 37% (2.48 centuries per match in 2008-09). Last year it was 28% (1.67 centuries per match). In comparison, South Africa, now the best Test team in the world, had a conversion rate of 29% (1.83 centuries per match) in the SuperSport series, India converted at 33% (1.93 per match) in the Ranji Trophy, and Australians turned fifties into tons 27% of the time in the Sheffield Shield (1.48 per match).

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