February 20, 2014

Eleven reasons why New Zealand are looking good

Featuring McCullum, Taylor, Boult, Southee and a support cast of team-mates, coaches and fans

The most heart-warming summer in New Zealand cricket's recent history © Getty Images

The great escape by New Zealand in the second Test against India in Wellington highlighted how much their cricket has improved this summer. Here are 11 reasons why a new era has dawned.

Brendon McCullum's leadership
Even before becoming New Zealand's first triple-century-maker, the skipper had gelled the operation; a scenario scarcely imaginable a year ago when cricket in New Zealand threatened to implode following the Ross Taylor captaincy demotion. McCullum deserves credit for balancing the needs of senior players, in particular Taylor, while convincing younger players they belong at international level. The 32-year-old is generally composed and communicates clearly, something the team has responded to well under pressure, like in the first-Test win at Eden Park.

Then came McCullum's 302, something no New Zealander had achieved in 84 years of Tests. It wasn't so much the figure as the circumstances of its execution. His tenacity left an indelible mark on the country's sporting history. The feat compounded the inspiration offered by the New Zealand team this summer for fans who long ago could have been forgiven for slipping into apathy. You want further proof? How about the queues waiting to get into the ground on the final morning? Rare scenes for New Zealand.

Public support
How often do talkback stations, social media and online feedback hum with such goodwill for the national side? The occasions are rare enough since Sir Richard Hadlee's retirement in 1990 to be listed by month: February-March 1992 (World Cup), July-August 1999 (England Test series win), January-February 2002 (ODI tri-series finals in Australia), February 2007 (Chappell-Hadlee series whitewash). Slim pickings. McCullum's triple-century, the country's finest Test innings on several fronts, was the coup de grace in a summer of goodwill. Coach Mike Hesson summed it up: "It defined the way we want to play our cricket… [it] stopped a nation to a degree. As a New Zealander, not only as coach, it was a pretty special moment."

With the World Cup returning to New Zealand for the first time in 23 years next year, this summer was the perfect entrée to capture hearts and minds.

Defence as good as attack
The recovery in the second Test from a seemingly insurmountable situation at 94 for 5 to post the team's highest score, 680 for 8, represented the finest hour as Test batsmen for McCullum and BJ Watling with their world-record sixth-wicket stand of 352. Their heroics rank with New Zealand's finest partnerships, fulfilling the very definition of "test". McCullum also came to the wicket at 30 for 3 in the first Test before making 224 with the support of Kane Williamson, who has one of the best temperaments and techniques in the world for dealing with crises.

A revolution in professionalism
"It's great seeing guys mature into their roles and their careers but we're not good enough to be complacent. These guys put in a lot of hours of hard graft," said McCullum after the final one-dayer against India, having beaten the visitors 4-0 in the series. It continued into the Tests. The work ethic is pervasive, be it Williamson getting throwdowns until daylight concedes defeat, or Mitchell McClenaghan introducing team-mates to the benefits of the fitness programme CrossFit.

Taylor's crusade
Ross Taylor, remember him? In a tumultuous year post-captaincy, three centuries in consecutive Tests against West Indies saw Taylor emerge with unparalleled self-belief. He has thanked mental conditioning work with Gilbert Enoka and Gary Hermansson as the key means enabling him to concentrate for sustained periods. It prompted McCullum, after the Hamilton Test victory, to say: "If he was to retire now he'd go down as one of our all-time greats - and I said [to the team] we should enjoy watching a guy like that." Taylor went on to hit consecutive match-winning centuries in the last two ODIs against India but missed the final Test due to the birth of his second child, Jonty Luteru.

Mike Hesson's man-management
Hesson works like an unobtrusive DJ, seamlessly spinning the vinyl in the background while his players dance their tune. He prefers to let his captain lead, as most great sides - think Don Bradman, Clive Lloyd and Steve Waugh - have done, and his planning is paying dividends. Hesson describes himself as "no show pony" and a "clinical sort of bloke" who tries to "balance out the highs and lows". There was no better example than in the second Test during the tight moments in the dressing room leading to McCullum's 300. "We all sat on the same seats for a couple days, ate the same food and tried to do as little as we could," Hesson said. "When he got to 300 you saw true emotion come out and we were all delighted."

Emergence of raw talent
Corey Anderson has been a revelation with the fastest ODI century, in 36 balls, in Queenstown on New Year's Day. Mumbai Indians concurred to a point where they invested US$750,000 in his IPL services this season. The other strong movers, allrounder Jimmy Neesham (with the highest score, 137 not out, by a No. 8 batsman on Test debut) and pace bowler Matt Henry (four wickets for 38 on ODI debut), have been secured by Delhi Daredevils and Chennai Super Kings respectively. All three look set to be part of New Zealand's World Cup plans.

Team men
Every team has its stars - in the summer of 2013-14 they have been McCullum, Taylor, Williamson, Trent Boult and Tim Southee - but others are required to provide support they can rely on or advice they can trust. In the Test team the input of veteran first-class players like Peter Fulton, Neil Wagner and Watling, or Nathan McCullum and Kyle Mills in the one-dayers, is hard to quantify but useful in building camaraderie.

Measured selection policies
Since his August appointment as selection manager, Bruce Edgar has brought professionalism, objectivity and effective communication to the role. A core group of players has been established, which looks sound for a couple of years. Sure, Edgar's one of New Zealand most respected former players but his method and logic, drawn from his financial consultancy background and qualification as a Level 3 coach, appear to be paying dividends.

Use of Shane Bond
Fifteen months in and Bond can claim progress in the player-to-coach transition. He has nurtured one of the country's best opening partnerships: Southee and Boult. Wagner also had his best Test in Auckland, while Kyle Mills, Mitchell McClenaghan, Hamish Bennett and Matt Henry have fronted in ODIs. Bond claims to be consultative rather than instructive because his charges are "pretty self-sufficient". His key thrust has been aggression, such as employing the short-ball policy against India.

Doug Bracewell and Jesse Ryder
The flip side to the intrepid pair's fall from grace, when news leaked of their transgressions before the first India Test, is that it raised the dressing room's motivation. The threat of getting axed from a team on the rise is an antidote to preventing further indiscretions. Such matters can bond teams tighter, especially when kudos the team deserved from their Eden Park victory was diluted as a result.

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