June 12, 2001

African duty just an appetiser for O'Connor

Few bowlers, if any, in the recent history of New Zealand's international cricket have revelled as Shayne O'Connor did in the extra labours required of him last summer when injury deprived the side of its best performers.

The Otago left-arm medium-fast swing bowler O'Connor was in his element and produced some of the finest, and most consistent, bowling of his career.

With Chris Cairns, Geoff Allott, Dion Nash and Daniel Vettori missing in action, someone had to pick up the work rate and it fell to O'Connor.

It had its effects, however, and after the one-off Boxing Day Test with Zimbabwe, O'Connor was put out to pasture unceremoniously and left to recharge his batteries. In the process the work load of Africa took its toll and O'Connor broke down requiring surgery on his knee.

Effectively, his summer was over. Given the improvements he had made, although he says it was just reverting to how he bowled at high school, and the speed he had regained, it was a disappointing end for all concerned in seeing O'Connor gain the recognition for the work he had done.

None felt it more than he did.

It was his goal to come back to New Zealand from Africa and show that he could thrive in home conditions. Injury meant that had to wait.

The good news is, however, that O'Connor has fronted up for the first selection exercise of the new cricket year, the limited overs tour to Sri Lanka, fit and ready to go. Whether he is named or not, there is always the prospect of the tour to Pakistan in September and Australia to follow that.

It is an interesting consideration whether O'Connor deserves to be categorised as more of a Test bowler is an interesting point.

While he took some fearful punishment earlier in his career as an at-the-death bowler, he showed much greater understanding of his role in Africa and picked up a key five wickets for 46 runs in New Zealand's ICC KnockOut semi-final win over Pakistan.

"I do prefer Test cricket but I am still a cricket lover and I do enjoy one-dayers for a change," he said.

"I believe I have progressed as a one-day bowler. I bowled with a lot more self-belief in Africa. We did a lot more training beforehand and I had a lot more confidence in my action. Personally, I felt as good as I ever had," he said.

O'Connor found himself able to forget thinking about the last ball bowled knowing that if he did things right the next ball should be in the right place.

Small things, but vitally important when the heat is on and a batsman like Lance Klusener or Nicky Boje is on the charge.

Taking the role of senior bowler for the Test matches placed a different kind of pressure on him and he admitted to thriving in the situation.

Having regained some of the pace he had lost, the result of minor changes to his bowling technique over the years, he was able to cap off the more specific training the New Zealanders had undertaken.

"It was almost into sprinter-type training," he said, while the weight training done was more explosive work.

"I would have to give 70-80% of the credit to the training we did. The rest was the minor change to my action which resulted in me bowling more like I did at high school.

"Looking at the video analysis the fault in my timing was picked up and I worked on that. I found by improving my timing that when I got tired in South Africa I was still able to do it correctly.

"It was another little thing that helped build my confidence," he said.

So well did his confidence grow that O'Connor finished the 2000 calendar year as New Zealand's most successful bowler. He was 10th on the international standings with his 29 wickets in eight Tests coming at an average of 23.86.

During the actual 2000/01 Test programme he finished with 18 wickets at 26.0.

While he did enjoy the opportunities the injuries to others provided him with, O'Connor admitted that it was tough and he was shattered by the end of the Zimbabwe Test in Wellington, played soon after the team returned from South Africa.

"I was knackered mentally and physically. It was a huge tour and while I watched the guys playing the one-day series against Zimbabwe in the New Year, I felt sorry for them.

"I know we do get paid for doing it. But with professionalism gaining momentum I do think we have to get used to the idea that we might need some breaks or face the prospect of having shorter careers," he said.

New Zealand's bowling problems surely bear that out. And the situation is right now for New Zealand to look to use more rotation of its bowlers.

Hitting Pakistan and Australia with full-strength attacks will be important for New Zealand next summer, and then there is the prospect of dealing with England at home.

"There's a lot of cricket to go. If I don't get an opportunity early on then I will have to sit tight and wait my opportunity later.

"I would like to make the Aussie tour. I look back at the last one and can hardly remember a thing about it," he said of what was his first big tour with the national side.

In the mean-time there are other important matters to attend to. The paper he is doing through Massey University, the house he is doing up and most importantly of all, his August marriage, in Alexandra, to local girl Camille Grubb.

Originally from Hawke's Bay, O'Connor admits to being a Southern Man, although he said that title would have to be conferred by others. He does see his long-term future in the south saying he really enjoys the lifestyle offered by Central Otago.

But with his knee feeling good and the competitive fires burning again, O'Connor is shaping as a key component in New Zealand's Test attack this summer.