April 9, 2014

Failing the spin test

To be considered one of the best teams in the world, New Zealand must play spin with more surety on the subcontinent

New Zealand lost four wickets for ten runs before being bowled out for 60 against Sri Lanka in Chittagong © Getty Images

The shadow of a ball whirring at myriad rpm from the hands of Rangana Herath and Sachithra Senanayake loomed large over New Zealand as they exited the World T20.

The wiles of spin struck again, just as they had on recent tours to the subcontinent against India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. New Zealand need to return to the laboratory and formulate an antidote before venturing to the United Arab Emirates to play Pakistan later this year, and West Indies in June.

Herath and Senanayake were accurate and probing, but the New Zealand batsmen - Kane Williamson apart - acted like the bowlers were hurling chainsaws in Dhaka. The New Zealanders played French cricket around their pads, fended forlornly, or in Brendon McCullum's case, looked to heave an imaginary six somewhere near the Ganges Delta.

A boom summer hasn't suddenly turned to bust. Achievements at home against West Indies and India outweigh being shunted from the World T20. However, playing spin under pressure creates contagion in the dressing room. To be considered one of the best teams in the world, it's imperative New Zealand play spin with more surety on the subcontinent.

New Zealand Cricket has taken initiatives. Last year a New Zealand A team went to India before the Bangladesh tour in October. New Zealand subsequently drew the Tests and lost the ODIs, followed by a drawn ODI series in Sri Lanka.

Their record in the subcontinent is poor, even since coach Mike Hesson injected his brand of composure, determination and pragmatism from July 2012. Since then, in six Tests away against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India they have won one - courtesy Ross Taylor's batting in Colombo, in his final Test as captain. In eight completed ODIs away against those sides they have won one; in six T20Is they have won three. The struggle against spin is constant.

Dramatic steps might be required, like cricketers committing to subcontinental working holidays. That way batsmen and bowlers can get better, which in turn could improve the quality of spin in New Zealand domestic competitions.

Perhaps the country's emerging talent could forsake the time-honoured tradition of English leagues and pints of best bitter to head for a cocktail of maidans and masala. Such adventures would introduce players to quality spin at an early age, with the long-term benefit of representing New Zealand more competently.

Achievements at home against West Indies and India outweigh being shunted from the World T20. However, playing spin under pressure creates contagion in the dressing room

NZC could establish links through former national players and coaches like David Trist, John Wright, and Stephen Fleming, who have forged solid contacts in the subcontinent. Intrepid cricketers could experience a local club for a couple of months, perhaps forgoing plush hotels for the "character-building" surrounds of a quality youth hostel or billet. Tuk-tuks rather than air-conditioned buses would be the choice of transport. NZC could offer scholarship assistance.

Donning a cap in humid mid 30-degree temperatures and practising your craft on the dustbowls of an expansive maidan on a Saturday afternoon, just like Sachin Tendulkar did a generation ago in Mumbai, must hold allure. Alternatively, players could make their name among the plethora of clubs in the Colombo suburb of Cinnamon Gardens.

Australia's Matthew Hayden exemplified the benefits of immersion when he prepared against spin for a month in India ahead of the legendary 2001 Test series that the hosts came back to win 2-1. Hayden's average of 109.80 was more than twice that of his next-best team-mate (Steve Waugh, at 48.60).

A sustained spell in a club competition is ambitious. Another option could be schooling players at one of numerous academies, particularly in India. Relationships could also be struck with a local association to face quality young spinners in net sessions.

Trist acclimatised to the culture by visiting Pune regularly over 12 years to assist with coaching and developing the game. He also went on subcontinental tours as a New Zealand player (1969-70) and coach (1999-2001).

"It's totally logical to send players for sustained periods, because unless you conquer at the homes of four Test nations you're seldom going to be in the money on the world stage. I've never fully understood why NZC has not established a relatively cheap base there. Once airfares are paid, the costs are not huge. I think the issue is, New Zealand has a hangover from the days when going there was equivalent to a death warrant, with the state of food and hygiene. Today, as a burgeoning middle class develops in India and Sri Lanka, it's more doable."

Trist says a mindset exists where touring the subcontinent equates with drudgery. "That's why we see pre-tour camps held in Australia or 'somewhere more convenient'. Those environments [simulate] the heat but not the culture shock. You've got to take a pragmatic approach to bridge the gap if New Zealand are to be an outstanding, rather than promising, international side.

"Embrace the vagaries of pitches, heat, and the challenges to preparation. Play spin constantly; India's not exactly short of quality net bowlers. It's all very well going to England and playing county or league cricket in similar conditions to home where you can head to the pub afterwards and feel familiar in the company of the locals. You can't afford to 'be a New Zealander' in India. Show a willingness to cope by immersing yourself in the culture and you'll come out a better person."

Hesson says they can't treat the World T20 crumble as an epidemic. "We've scored a lot of runs in the last year or so against spin, like 600-plus against Shane Shillingford and Co [in Dunedin]. Our high-performance plan to play spin occurs before the Black Caps, like through our A team programme. By the time they get to the Black Caps, they should have had an abundance of cricket to build defensive screens and be in a position to put those training hours into practice.

"Last year, we sent the likes of Anton Devcich, Jimmy Neesham, Colin Munro and Tom Latham to the subcontinent as examples of players who needed experience there. It is not difficult to build relationships with academies and associations. It's more about finding the necessary resources and finance and finding a space to fit it into the month a player has off each year."

Hesson says spinners also need to visit the subcontinent. "They have to adapt to the conditions by bowling more into the wicket because the variation comes more from skidding and turning on the surface rather than in the air."

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

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