Is there a method to NZC's madness?
At times New Zealand Cricket resembles a television soap opera; the sport's Coronation Street or Neighbours. Most international observers can get by watching about ten minutes a year, but for New Zealand fans it is a perplexing matrix of plot lines that produces drama, frustration, and joy (not necessarily in equal quantities).
Let's extend the analogy to July. It has been a boom month for the NZC show's producers. First a rejigged cast (read: player contracts list) was announced. Then, those at the network who decide how the show is screened (read: the six major associations and 22 district associations) revealed they're changing how the show operates at the constitutional level.
Finally, two production staff brought in from Australia to jazz up ratings (read: the director of cricket and the national selection manager) are heading home. This is on top of controversial twists that saw changes to the coach and captain over the last year.
NZC can glean satisfaction from the purge. The decisions to remove Ross Taylor as captain and fail to push harder to retain John Wright as coach produced a storm of public protest; it was almost effigy-burning time. The "Australianisation" of NZC and revamping of the constitution produced more of a Velvet Revolution; there was general recognition that change was required.
From a playing perspective the team has earned a pass mark since Taylor's ousting. They won ODI series against England and South Africa and gained parity in the home Tests against England. However, a disappointing Champions Trophy and Test series losses in England and South Africa proved they are rarely capable of rising beyond the small occasion.
Strong commercial arrangements like the overseas broadcasting rights deal, guaranteeing an income stream for eight years, have helped bolster their reputation. NZC chief executive David White and national coach Mike Hesson appear to have been the biggest winners in the wake of the purge. Once the selection management/cricket director roles have been restructured, White will be controlling his own destiny without past baggage from former CEO Justin Vaughan's reign, where Buchanan was signed until the end of the World Cup in 2015.
Buchanan's departure was choreographed under the file "family reasons" but the move hardly came as a shock. It seems likely that his contract was bought out, yet it really wouldn't have been scandalous to admit the deal simply hadn't worked out. The public would have accepted NZC's humility. Sometimes plans fail despite best intentions.
The working relationships between Buchanan and White (who Buchanan reported to) and Hesson (who reported to Buchanan) appear to have been limited. A tough call had to be made and NZC acted. Regardless of future appointments, Hesson now has ultimate control over team selection, which he effectively had during Littlejohn's tenure. The Australian simply collated and presented objective information from the domestic scene.
Looking ahead, a solution could be to bring former Test opening heroes Bruce Edgar and John Wright back to the fold. Edgar's organisational skills and extensive coaching background in New South Wales could be matched with Wright's selection nous (remembering he has just coached Mumbai Indians to the Indian Premier League title in his first attempt). With Buchanan removed, perhaps Wright and NZC could reconcile. Just a thought.
The extent to which Buchanan fulfilled his obligations to establish "clear and consistent national coaching philosophies, implement a talent-identification programme and oversee the selection panel" since May 2011 will be moot points. Yet, for all the finger-pointing at his perceived "left-field" thinking, he was always an amicable, logical and passionate interviewee. His catch-cry during the Taylor captaincy saga (where he supported the ousted leader) was that NZC needed to embrace the mantra of "integrity, trust, honesty and accountability" to recover from one of the lowest ebbs in its history. It rang true.
"They now need to continue to demonstrate those attributes at training, in the meeting room and on the playing field," he said.
The general NZC malaise over December and January raised questions over Buchanan's future despite an impeccable pedigree as Australian coach from 1999-2007, presiding over a record number of consecutive Test wins (16) and two World Cup triumphs. His role in the Taylor captaincy saga seemed to taint his future as he became marginalised and struggled to retain significance.
"I'm happy with the plan we have but the impact it makes on New Zealand stakeholders can be slow," he said at the time. "Humiliating results like those on day one in South Africa [when New Zealand were dismissed for 45] don't help."
He also spoke some fateful words to counter the catalogue of woe in the South African Test series: "The cricket World Cup [to be held in Australasia in early 2015] is the most important thing on the horizon because it's only two years away. To put our best foot forward in an event in our own backyard, we need to place that as a priority above the longer form of the game."
Such a statement raised the question whether pyjamas had won the war over whites. It appeared to raise the white flag towards admitting New Zealand's Test incompetence. He had disenfranchised the purists.
For further evidence New Zealand is embarking on a fresh era (cynics might counter that by saying, "Aren't they always?"), look no further than the 20 players offered 2013-14 national contracts; the first list Hesson has overseen since he became coach.
Six players - Corey Anderson, Tom Latham, Bruce Martin, Mitchell McClenaghan, Colin Munro, and Hamish Rutherford - will be new cast members when the deals start on August 1, while Grant Elliott and Peter Fulton return.
Chris Martin retired and Daniel Vettori opted out, but the rest - Andrew Ellis, Daniel Flynn, James Franklin, Tarun Nethula, Rob Nicol and Kruger van Wyk - failed to pass muster. Jesse Ryder's international future remains undecided as he contemplates a fresh start in Otago.
Hesson can feel his blueprint for changing the country's cricketing fortunes is in place. Bowlers Tim Southee and Trent Boult are likely to have been the big winners in the ranked list. New Zealand's Test batting may be inadequate but the pair have threatened opposition top orders, using their swing and guile.
The ICC's tours programme is subject to change but New Zealand are listed for 11 Tests, 21 ODIs, six T20s and a World Twenty20 in Bangladesh in the year starting August 1. There still appears to be an emphasis on ODIs leading to the 2015 World Cup at home. Like it or not, the contracts reflect this, with players like Anderson, Latham, McClenaghan and Munro to the fore.
Set criteria are used to rank players across all three forms. Tests receive twice the weighting of ODIs and T20 internationals. Players with the highest aggregate scores are offered contracts.
To complete the holistic overhaul, NZC has also changed its constitution. Chairman Chris Moller and three other board members are resigning, and a different system of appointing the board was recently approved.
Those in contention for board selection will be recommended by a newly created appointments panel (chaired by NZC president Stephen Boock and including three major association chairmen on rotation and a Sport New Zealand nomination). They will present candidates to NZC's 22 districts and six major associations for voting at a special general meeting on September 19.
The old system meant individuals had to be nominated by an association. Now anyone is free to put their name forward for screening. They don't need major association backing any more.
"We weren't getting enough people putting their names forward because of the restrictive process in the constitution," Boock said.
Cricket knowledge and experience, business acumen, strategic thinking and an understanding of governance are the prime qualities sought. The new board members may also be paid for the first time, depending on approval from NZC members.
Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday