April 17, 2014

New Zealand must look in the mirror

If they are to live up to their potential in next year's World Cup at home, they need to look within and search for inspiration pronto

Signs have been encouraging for New Zealand as they build towards co-hosting the next World Cup in 2015. While, signs are good, billboards are better.

The event itself will be hugely supported. Kiwi folk know the meaning of supporting an event like this, for they have examples, etched in their hearts. In 1987, the All Blacks won the inaugural rugby World Cup on home turf. In 1992, the Young Guns went close, as close as any New Zealand cricket team to date has, and then after 24 long-suffering years, it was the fans' rousing support that spurred on the ABs again to lift the Webb Ellis trophy once more, by one point, against a fervent France. Add to that the 1974 and 1990 Commonwealth Games and the effect it had on our athletes, and it rounds off the notion that playing in one's backyard with a world title at stake can't be beaten in the life of a sportsman.

My own story of World Cup adventure has been eventful. In 1987, in Indore, in our third match of the tournament, following my excellent form in the first, I led with a blistering assault against Australia in a rain-reduced 30-over chase. The Australian bowlers were at my mercy and by the time we all arrived at the final over, we only needed 7 runs to win, with plenty of wickets in hand. I was 58 not out, the field spread, and Steve Waugh to bowl.

Instead of playing the ball instinctively, as I had done till then, I got sidetracked and hooked into seeing a big gap over mid-off, right in front of me. I didn't move the premeditated thought out of the way; I swung early and the off-side sweeper rounded out a good running catch at deep extra-cover. We lost two more wickets in that over, scoring just 1. It was my wicket that was the death blow. I choked.

I lived with that for weeks, as Australia, and not us under my brother Jeff, went on to lift the Cup at Eden Gardens. Weeks turned into months, and then years. Without confronting it, a few more chokes emerged; the final wake-up call happened a month prior to the 1992 World Cup, when I lost the first Test against England in Christchurch with a last-minute brain explosion.

However, when the honour was given to me to lead my nation out onto Eden Park on February 22, 1992, I was ready. In the weeks prior, I had sought the help I needed, faced the truth, removed the mistakes if not the memories, intent on carrying New Zealand all the way this time, by holding my nerve. If it wasn't for a hamstring tear, and my hasty, misguided decision to rest the leg in order to play the Melbourne final, we would have achieved our goal.

The point is admission. I choked in Indore, Wellington (where I was dismissed for 299 against Sri Lanka), and Christchurch. Slowly, I realised there was no shame in admitting it, and as soon as I did, my mind came alive in my quest to seek the right information on how to deal with mental interference and random thoughts when they arose. More so, to play fearlessly, with courage and skill, when the moment called for it.

This is what any side, any individual player, must attempt to do. Choking, in my understanding, is when you fail to admit there is a need to change, and remain stuck stubbornly in the old belief, unable to breathe in new air, unable to think clearly in the pressure moment.

Often in sport there are two mindsets that confront you: playing in familiar conditions that breed clarity, and the opposite - playing in conditions that are very unfamiliar (like Pete Sampras playing on clay, or Bjorn Borg on cement) that lead to confusion and uncertainty. Playing cricket in Asia is as hard as it gets for the likes of Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand, and there is no shame in admitting that. Asian sides face the same challenges when it is reversed. The requirement is to face it front-on and improve your odds of success. All eight major nations have time to assess how they will approach this major event Down Under, and how they can improve their chances in familiar or unfamiliar conditions over a longer period.

Following their soft, weak departure in the World T20 recently, can New Zealand face the truth of courage under fire? What can they learn from succumbing to the pressure of elimination, albeit in unfamiliar conditions?

Only one player in that match against Sri Lanka, Kane Williamson, showed his growing and improving internal fortitude and appetite for riding stormy weather in foreign seas. He is a thorough workhorse in the net environment, and his obsession with the game showed, while the others toppled like a row of bicycles on a busy Mumbai roadside. It won't be like that in Wellington or Auckland, but some serious self-appraisal needs to be done if New Zealand are to break the hoodoo of six semi-final exits in days gone by. It could be said that reaching that many was an over-achievement, but in familiar conditions their potential rises again.

Many will read that and say you have to make a semi-final first to break anything. And that won't be easy. So here is the guts of what needs to be done, in my humble opinion.

That New Zealand have just recently failed a pressure test is why they must begin the admission that work is in order. Otherwise the slow choke will begin to surface at the toughest moments, as it did for the All Blacks in rugby World Cups over two decades

Mike Hesson, the head coach, and Brendon McCullum, the captain, should have a good grasp on their men at this point. Yet Hesson must encourage McCullum himself, and Ross Taylor, who have experienced enough by now, to share their truth as to what went down in Chittagong, and what has gone down at other moments, which will help their younger charges face any fears they may have. In what was effectively a quarter-final match, McCullum's reckless charge at Rangana Herath, when on nought, had a feeling of déjà vu about it; McCullum is building a track record in ICC tournament elimination matches that isn't good reading, and needs to be addressed: four ODI innings for 14 runs.

Darren Lehmann, for Australia, will ensure this mentoring happens for them in their build-up. There will be no doubt that his charges will be exposed to Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Australia's library of World Cup success is vast and it will be a misguided soul who doesn't listen intently to any who lifted the Cup for them previously. They will be hard to beat next March.

The key for any team is, the work has to start now, but the difficulty is that in the meantime, individual players are spread far and wide, competing for IPL and other T20 riches. But there must in the next six months be some serious work, talk and enactment of how this next World Cup can be won.

The first task is to face the mirror. When you look deep into the eyes of the man staring back at you, you find much to see and consider. Whether you want to see the truth, and face changing the truth, is the crux. If the positive, enlightening decision is taken, then the process begins. From there you begin the search for the best information and inspiration you can find. Only the best will do, the ones who have smelt and touched it before. It gives you a sense of what is to come, of real hope and belief, coupled with an acceptance of what you can offer and achieve with new, raw honesty. Once all this is found, time is needed to throw out the old thinking and bring in the new, gently and slowly. It never happens overnight. That is the essence of truth.

That New Zealand have just recently failed a pressure test is the very reason why they must begin the admission that work is in order and the truth must be pursued and faced. Otherwise, the slow choke will begin to surface at the toughest moments, as it did for the All Blacks in rugby World Cups over two decades and has for South Africa in cricket world events since 1998.

While, incredibly, South Africa are still in denial, New Zealand must not fall into the same trap as they attempt to realise the potential for a glory never achieved before. Hesson has a job steering them towards the truth, and there is no time to lose, or the unique opportunity for Cup glory at home will be lost.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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