November 13, 2013

Two steps back for New Zealand

Their showing in Bangladesh seems to have given the lie to the progress they made earlier this year

Apathy can strike even the most ardent cricket follower at some stage in their fan life-cycle. The third dead-rubber ODI on November 3 between New Zealand and Bangladesh was a case in point.

Bangladesh were chasing an unlikely 308 for victory. The New Zealand bowlers served up a smorgasbord that was smeared all about Fatullah by greedy batsmen. They flayed at will, like the ball was hung in a stocking on the backyard clothesline. The television remote was within easy reach. The temptation to channel-surf was compelling. Hmmm. Antiques Roadshow? Reruns of Bergerac? Cupcake Wars? Click, click, click.

Such a state of cricketing ennui has seeped into the New Zealand fan base. Mark Richardson - or more accurately his wife - summed it up when, in a Herald on Sunday newspaper column, he said they switched over to watch the first ODI. Her first reaction was: "The Black Caps are playing? Oh, nobody would even know this s**t is on." And that was before they lost.

With the All Blacks rugby team beginning their annual northern hemisphere tour, the rugby league World Cup underway in Britain and France, and the All Whites football team embarking on their World Cup qualifier against Mexico, cricket has been bumped from the national sporting consciousness. That's the most dangerous place it can be for New Zealand Cricket.

In 15 months, NZC has aspirations it can emulate the heroics of those who entertained the public so gallantly at the 1992 World Cup. The 2015 World Cup organisers could be forgiven for sobbing into their cocoa, given the New Zealand team's latest escapade. Still, it bodes well for Bangladesh, who like Sri Lanka in the 1990s are showing signs of awakening.

Bangladesh have been touted, by a patronising element of fans, as minnows, yet it was New Zealand who looked like cricketing plankton in the recent 3-0 ODI series defeat, backing up from the 4-0 margin in 2010. As a consequence, New Zealand, with 84 points on the international rankings compared to Bangladesh's 83, are flirting with a return to ninth in the world.

NZC chief executive David White perhaps summed up the situation best when he said the ODI series loss reflected "two steps forward, one step back" after wins in South Africa and England this year. However, the statement must also be tempered by a rain-affected exit from the Champions Trophy when an advance to the semi-finals was within grasp.

Other factors have exacerbated the situation. The decision, prior to the Bangladesh ODIs, to bring the captain, Brendon McCullum, and Ross Taylor home before the Sri Lankan leg to prepare them for the West Indies Tests probably held merit, given it appeared to be another meaningless set of ODIs, the likes of which have become a by-product of the otherwise admirable Future Tours Programme.

In 15 months, NZC has aspirations it can emulate the heroics of those who entertained the public so gallantly at the 1992 World Cup. The 2015 World Cup organisers could be forgiven for sobbing into their cocoa, given the New Zealand team's latest escapade

Instead - with the value of hindsight - it raises questions about whether the Bangladesh tour as a whole was treated with enough gravitas. The lead-up appeared to be planned meticulously, with the use of a development tour to India and Sri Lanka to give younger players a chance to adapt to subcontinental conditions. Whether a number of those same players should then have advanced straight into the national side in Bangladesh (and now Sri Lanka) needs to be evaluated. Sixteen out of 21 used on that A tour have played for New Zealand in some format. It makes the point of whether the value of international caps has become diluted moot. Sometimes the number of incumbent domestic players to have represented New Zealand seems like a cast to rival the likes of Aida.

Ironically, interest in how the New Zealanders fare against West Indies and India this summer could be keen. Fans will demand a respectable showing to reflect the supposed development of the team, as seen particularly in ODIs earlier this year.

The player likely to receive the most focus is McCullum. The onus remains on him to score more runs. He is yet to lead New Zealand to a Test victory; since he took over near the end of 2012, there have been six wins, seven losses and a no-result in 14 ODIs (there was also a loss and a no-result in matches he missed), and a T20 record of three wins, four losses and one no-result.

McCullum initially appeared to be spurred by the leadership, resulting in form against England last summer, but that has ebbed. His Test average of 29.64 with the captaincy - compared to 34.98 overall - will be scrutinised, especially considering he hasn't made a Test century in three years. The level of analysis might depend on how well Jesse Ryder performs in the Plunket Shield, given the hint he is ready to return to the international ranks.

Not helping the New Zealand cause is the fact that today marks the first anniversary of the hotel meeting between Ross Taylor and team management that saw him lose the captaincy in one of NZC's most notorious controversies. The incident still haunts talkback radio and social-media forums on occasion; it received a burst of oxygen following the Bangladesh series defeat. While Taylor's ODI form has been strong since that 2012 Sri Lanka tour (averaging 50.70 in 12 matches, including two centuries, compared to a career average of 39.15), his Test form has waned (averaging 37.10 in seven Tests, with no centuries, compared to 42.81 overall). New Zealand have suffered.

Once the current Sri Lankan series plods to an end with the second T20 on November 21, there are 12 days until the first Test against West Indies in Dunedin. It'll be sad for cricket if some say, "Who cares?" Only the players, led by McCullum, can halt such bleakness. Otherwise more fans could be making the switch to Antiques Roadshow.

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