September 13, 2012

Why can't New Zealand score more hundreds?

Misguided coaching, bowling-friendly conditions and players' attitudes haven't helped

In Wisden and on ESPNcricinfo, it clearly shows that the greatest century-makers in Test cricket are the Indians and the Australians. The West Indians have a representative in the top ten in Brian Lara, and recently, through Jacques Kallis, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, the South Africans and Sri Lankans are acknowledged right up there alongside the best. No other country is represented in the 30-plus century club.

The Pakistanis' best is Inzamam-ul-Haq, on 25 hundreds, while England's most prolific are the old-timers Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoff Boycott, all on 22. But as we know, Alastair Cook, on 20 currently, will surely smash that and climb into the top echelon.

New Zealand is the only one of the eight main Test-playing nations not to have a player score over 20 hundreds; their highest is 17, while 12 is the next best. In fact, only three players are in double figures in terms of century count. Add to that the fact that New Zealand is the only established nation that's yet to post a triple-century, coming agonisingly close with a 299, when yours truly had a brain fade.

So why have New Zealand been so poor compared to the rest, and why is it seemingly getting worse? As each series goes by, New Zealand give the impression they won't improve anytime soon on this front.

To me, the art of scoring a hundred is to keep it dead simple: bat in tens. Greg Chappell quietly said this to me once, and it resonated loud and clear. By scoring in small incremental blocks of ten runs at a time, I was able to maintain concentration, not worry at all about the nineties (it was only another block of ten), and ultimately carry on a lot longer after the century milestone was reached.

I believe for Test teams to truly compete, they need at least two players consistently scoring hundreds every three to four Tests. From 1985-94 I managed 16 hundreds in 50 consecutive Tests (following my first relatively unproductive 20-Test apprenticeship and before a limp seven-Test finish), so it can be done, but it can't be done alone. With John Wright, John Reid and Andrew Jones playing well for a period, I was in really good company, and it proved partnerships mean everything. In contrast, when Lara was in full flight, he did it alone, and so West Indies began their dreadful slide.

To try to understand why New Zealand have underachieved in consistently scoring Test hundreds, it needs to be acknowledged that this is a rugby-mad country, and mostly all major grounds and stadiums are geared for the All Blacks to win under lights.

Even with the advent of portable pitches, batting in New Zealand has always been regarded a challenge for most batsmen - hosts and visitors alike - as the pitches, coupled with English-type weather, have made run scoring rather difficult at times. Ask Garry Sobers, Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar, to name a few over the decades, and they will confirm this.

Some would say that the hosts should be used to the conditions and ought to be able to develop the appropriate game to prosper. I agree, and my personal adjustment was to shorten my backlift significantly so I could adjust better to the inconsistent bounce and movement, swing or seam. By shortening my backlift I scored less quickly but managed to stay at the crease longer. This later also helped combat reverse swing.

Through the last century, New Zealand batsmen played only about five or six Tests a year, about half of those on bowler-friendly pitches at home. For a long time, getting into a habit of scoring big hundreds didn't come about because of limited opportunities, to add to the poor conditions for batting.

However, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, through the exposure gained by the likes of Glenn Turner, Richard Hadlee, Geoff Howarth and John Wright, who all became full-time professionals and played regular county cricket, the new doctrine was to "up performance" and take on the world. This included players being selected and expected to score big hundreds and take five-wicket hauls - which Hadlee excelled at. Contributing to team victories became a necessary goal for the individual within the team ethos, and this requirement was passed down sternly and clearly to youngsters entering the dressing room. Standards were set high. I became addicted to the mantra of "We are better than they are."

Because of my personal drive and obsession with scoring Test hundreds through the 1980s, as New Zealand got better and better, I felt responsible for passing the baton to new players when we entered the 1990s, post-Hadlee, and so I approached Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle with confidence that they would carry it on.

Instead, I struck an odd resistance. The new breed simply didn't feel the need to set the goal of scoring hundreds for the team. Of course, they wanted to score them, but they didn't want that "extra pressure" of being seen to seek them. Hadlee and I had talked openly and publicly about setting and chasing goals; the downside was that it seemed to turn others off. These new players chose to play for the team and the occasion, to be ultimate team men and not seek individual milestones. It sounded admirable, and it was, but on the other hand the team needed big hundreds and it needed them consistently.

In his defence, Fleming had just became New Zealand captain at age 23, and his sights had been dramatically adjusted from being a batsman learning the craft of succeeding at the highest level to leading a young, impressionable and highly talented team. Overnight his focus had switched to a new responsibility.

And leadership he showed, so much so that he became New Zealand's greatest captain and man manager of all time. He instilled in his team the mantra called BTB (Better than Before), a reference to topping the efforts of the '80s. And so a new attitude was born.

Fleming's team played well for a good period, rising to No. 3 in the world in 2001-02, but they couldn't sustain it. The hundreds weren't there often enough, and gradually a pattern emerged. The conversion rate from fifties to hundreds got worse. Fleming himself, despite his strong hand at the helm, secured a return of only nine hundreds and 46 fifties in 111 Tests. He was way too good to finish with numbers like those. Yet, contrastingly, while not able to convert often enough, he was able to play some extraordinary innings in becoming the only New Zealander to post three Test double-hundreds.

During this time, in 1998, the New Zealand board set up an academy in Lincoln. Coaches and professors from Victoria were flown in. But any hope that the next generation would be given assistance and expertise on how to post world-class scores soon fell apart. It was an outstanding disaster.

Biomechanics became the new buzzword for New Zealand's finest batting talent. The theory passed on was that hand speed and power efficiency "through the shot" was everything. Out the window went footwork, body position, soft hands and hitting the ball late below the eyes. In came heavier bats, high backlifts, minimal footwork and going hard at the ball.

Most frequent century makers in Tests (Qual: 20 hundreds)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s Inngs per 100
Don Bradman 80 6996 99.94 29/ 13 2.76
Jacques Kallis 262 12,641 56.94 43/ 55 6.09
Matthew Hayden 184 8625 50.73 30/ 29 6.13
Garry Sobers 160 8032 57.78 26/ 30 6.15
Sachin Tendulkar 314 15,533 55.08 51/ 65 6.16
Greg Chappell 151 7110 53.86 24/ 31 6.29
Sunil Gavaskar 214 10,122 51.12 34/ 45 6.29
Kumar Sangakkara 189 9872 56.73 30/ 39 6.30
Wally Hammond 140 7249 58.45 22/ 24 6.36
Mohammad Yousuf 156 7530 52.29 24/ 33 6.50

Most frequent century-makers in Tests for New Zealand (Qualification: six hundreds)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s Inngs per 100
John Reid 31 1296 46.28 6/ 2 5.17
Martin Crowe 131 5444 45.36 17/ 18 7.71
Glenn Turner 73 2991 44.64 7/ 14 10.43
Andrew Jones 74 2922 44.27 7/ 11 10.57
Ross Taylor 75 3025 42.60 7/ 16 10.71
John Wright 148 5334 37.82 12/ 23 12.33
Nathan Astle 137 4702 37.02 11/ 24 12.45
Geoff Howarth 83 2531 32.44 6/ 11 13.83

Batting stats for each team between 1985 and 1992, and since Jan 2006
Team '85-'92 - Tests/ ave 100s/ 50s 50/100 ratio 2006 onwards-Tests/ ave 100s/ 50s 50/100 ratio
India 53/ 32.84 50/ 107 2.14 74/ 35.89 88/ 209 2.38
New Zealand 52/ 30.24 44/ 96 2.18 51/ 27.27 32/ 110 3.44
England 77/ 29.25 65/ 148 2.28 84/ 35.08 101/ 196 1.94
Australia 69/ 32.81 67/ 156 2.33 68/ 37.08 86/ 182 2.12
Pakistan 54/ 31.11 38/ 104 2.74 55/ 32.11 51/ 136 2.67
Sri Lanka 30/ 26.89 20/ 58 2.90 59/ 35.99 74/ 132 1.78
West Indies 56/ 30.09 42/ 122 2.90 60/ 28.20 46/ 139 3.02
South Africa 4/ 28.22 3/ 10 3.33 64/ 36.52 81/ 141 1.74

The net result was faster strike rates and shorter stays at the crease. For a whole decade this theory was passed down to the next line of coaches, and from them to young players, who were too frightened to disregard the instructions thrust at them.

One who did ignore the tripe being coached was Ross Taylor. They say his natural stance and backlift are still the same as they were when he was playing school first-XI matches. He followed his own natural instincts and method, and didn't buy the wares of con artists selling their unproven bullshit to unsuspecting victims.

Dozens of talented batsmen were tried through this crazy ten-year period, including Craig Cumming, Matthew Bell, Michael Papps, Gary Stead, Craig Spearman, Jamie How, Mathew Sinclair, Hamish and James Marshall, Lou Vincent, Aaron Redmond, Peter Ingram, Tim McIntosh, Peter Fulton and others. One player who did well during this time came from a background of bowling spin and batting No. 11 - Mark Richardson. He missed the biomechanics batting clinic and thankfully became one of New Zealand's finest opening batsmen from sheer self-sufficiency and attitude.

That was then, this is now. New Zealand Cricket still hasn't settled on a basic batting method to adopt. The proper coaching methods must be reintroduced and embraced at all levels, first-class cricket must be reinstated as the priority format, and batsmen need to clearly set the goal that hundreds matter.

I believe there is a possibility that a present-day player or two will hopefully pick up the baton and run with it. That potential may well lie with Kane Williamson and Taylor, both of whom I regard highly as batsmen, especially as century-makers.

As the story goes, Williamson, before he left school, had notched up 40 hundreds in all forms at all levels. That's mighty impressive, suggesting he has an insatiable appetite for the ton, knows how to get it and wants more. So far in his 16 Tests he has scored two, which is a steady start, given he is 22. It's also time for the apprentice to become the master over the next phase and increase his ratio from one every eight Tests to one every four. He simply has to set his goal and his stall and get it done. No more pussyfooting around the crease, messing with backlifts and techniques: he must settle, aim and fire.

Taylor, on the other hand, has seven hundreds from 41 Tests, one every six Tests. He does possess the ability to do a Sehwag and rip out a triple-ton one day. As captain, he must demand more of the same of what we saw from him in the recent Bangalore Test. In that match he came out swinging, and the aggression paid off in the first innings. New Zealand need him to lead the way in the next period.

Taylor and Williamson can show the likes of Martin Guptill and the next generation how setting a big goal, then scoring a big hundred is not only helpful to a team's cause but is also personally satisfying and universally accepted.

Just ask Sachin.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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