May 30, 2013

What New Zealand need is orthodox coaching

They need to relearn the art of long-form batting if they are to ever dominate an attack like their great predecessors Turner and Crowe did

It is not easy being New Zealand cricket. The place is rugby-mad. Cricketers bust a gut but are hardly appreciated. They become chippy about it and then find themselves chippy with each other. From Turner to Taylor, there are not many Black Capped fellows who have dinner together. At least there did not used to be. Things are better now, though the relationship between Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor must be tricky. Friction comes from small communities and within the egos of a few strong swimmers attempting to make good their opportunity in a goldfish bowl.

Glenn Turner was the first outstanding New Zealand player of the modern television age. On the tour to England in 1973 he made 2416 runs at an average of 67 to top the national averages ahead of Geoffrey Boycott and Rohan Kanhai. That is how good he was. His name was made in a county career at Worcestershire, where locals talked of him in the same breath as two Richards - Viv and Barry - and Greg Chappell. High praise.

The Dunedin man's skill was in timing and placement. From an usually high and strong grip off the bat handle, he could thread a drive through any field setting and had an extraordinary ability to chip clever shots over the in-field, a particular advantage in the one-day game, where he became almost impossible to contain. They said he was weak against the short ball but he made two Test hundreds against West Indies and on the tour to the Caribbean in 1971-72 scored four double-hundreds in all matches. Agreed, these were not the West Indians of such terror that came later but you still have to get them. He is one of only four non-English batsmen to make a thousand runs before the end of May - also achieved on that '73 tour - and is in good company with Sir Donald Bradman, Zaheer Abbas and Viv Richards. I could go on. Turner has a remarkable record, even if his final Test match average of 44.6 was a tad beneath expectation.

Martin Crowe, the other exceptional New Zealand batsman of the age, would argue the same about his own Test match average of 45.3. They picked him before he was ready and flogged him when his wretched knee had given in. Still, he made pretty good, and, alongside Sir Richard Hadlee and other earthy types such John Wright and Ian Smith, gave his country a respected name in the cricket brotherhood and an improved record in the history books.

Everything about Crowe was orthodox, from his grip and stance to the execution of each shot. He played fast bowling especially well at a time when there was a plethora of the stuff, ranging from Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, through the full West Indian montage and on to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Crowe played the ball late, refusing to let his hands escape him and thus was one of the few to cope with fast reverse swing. Indeed, Akram believes Crowe to be the best he bowled to. Very high praise, given the options. Big hundreds in Guyana in 1985, Brisbane later that year and Lord's in 1994 are the innings that receive most acclaim, though he constructed a match-saving 299 against Sri Lanka in Wellington, falling almost mistakenly to Arjuna Ranatunga's gentle fare. Dismayed he said: "It's a bit like climbing Everest and pulling a hamstring in the last stride." Later, he figured it was not so bad to hold that magical Test match number with Bradman alone.

Such nostalgic reminiscence of these two fine cricketers comes in the wake of New Zealand's feeble batting at Lord's and Headingley. For sure, they faced a terrific English bowling attack but it is not unplayable. The darling buds of May rarely help batsmen, especially when the air is thick with damp and seam bowlers preen their feathers. But May is not a month in which Graeme Swann should be snaring ten-wicket bags.

Everything about Crowe was orthodox, from his grip and stance to the execution of each shot. He played fast bowling especially well at a time when there was a plethora of the stuff

McCullum admitted that his team fell short in technique, which means head position, body shape, control of the bat, footwork and even perhaps a need to watch the ball more closely. Shot selection was poor too and never better illustrated than by attempted cover drives against Swann. Of course, it is not everyone who can bat like Turner or Crowe. But the good player can apply himself like, say, Wright or Stephen Fleming from one era and Bevan Congdon from another.

Increasingly, cricket people talk of the need to entertain. Entertainment is a buzzword of the IPL, in which a number of New Zealand's present best make a fine return. Big bats and hits, hard hands, static footwork and left-side clearance all work well in the pursuit of ten an over but are worthless against the moving ball in a Test match. The art of long-form batting, of making hardcore hundreds that live with you for life, has left the land of the long white cloud in favour of less demanding gratification that comes with innings that last for just 20 overs.

New Zealand's batsmen look as if they need some old-fashioned coaching - hours in the nets, hitting thousands of balls the orthodox way. For a time Wright was in charge, but the appointment of John Buchanan moved him to remark: "It's fair to say I'm better coaching against John Buchanan than with him" and he rode off into the sunset. Wright understood young cricketers and could still convince them of traditional thinking. He did this in India, riding the Kolkata storm created by Jagmohan Dalmiya and Sourav Ganguly, while still impressing Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar.

Fleming himself must surely have a role at home and not just in Chennai with their Super Kings. New Zealand must work as one if they are to prosper in Test matches. Practice, preparation - there was only one rain-affected first-class game before the Lord's Test - and important contributions from those who truly know what it is to be a successful Black Caps cricketer in the international arena are all essential components of bringing New Zealand cricket back into shape. After all, the greatest Kiwi pleasure was being a pain in the opponent's backside. Some spit and sawdust might just make that possible again.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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