New Zealand news March 31, 2015

Daniel Vettori, Mr Spirit of Cricket

A fierce competitor yet unfailingly polite, Daniel Vettori draws the curtains on his 18-year international career

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'Vettori will be sorely missed' - Boult

It was typical Daniel Vettori, modest to the last. "Is this it, is this the official announcement?" a reporter asked at Auckland airport on Tuesday after New Zealand arrived home following their defeat in the World Cup final. "Ah, yeah, I suppose it is," Vettori replied. With that casual acknowledgement, international cricket lost one of its finest ambassadors.

But it could hardly have been any other way. Cricket has no shortage of headline-grabbers, men who enjoy being the centre of attention. Then there are those who let their deeds speak for them, the game's unassuming champions. In the past couple of decades, perhaps only Shivnarine Chanderpaul has matched Vettori for understated brilliance.

He has given 18 years to the New Zealand team, but in his own mind it has never been about Daniel Vettori. After he took the catch of the World Cup this month, a leaping one-handed take above his head on the boundary to get rid of Marlon Samuels in Wellington, he looked almost embarrassed. No fuss, no histrionics. Just modest Dan.

Softly-spoken and unfailingly polite, Vettori is the very essence of what New Zealand cricket has become. In 2009 and 2010 he captained New Zealand when they won the ICC Spirit of Cricket Award. In 2012 he won it on his own, for declining to appeal for a run-out in the Bulawayo Test against Zimbabwe, when he was bowling and had accidentally impeded the other runner.

"It was the right thing to do at the time and we as a team try and play with the right spirit of cricket," Vettori said after receiving the award. "It's hard to define the spirit of cricket, but go out on the field with the general mindset to play the game in the right way and always in the right frame of mind."

But zero slip-ups in 18 years would be remarkable, and not even Vettori could maintain that strike-rate. When he was fined most of his match fee for engaging in verbals with South Africa during a heated World Cup quarter-final in Dhaka in 2011, it was like hearing your parents swear for the first time. Really, you know those words? It was notable because it was so out of character.

If Michael Hussey was Mr Cricket, Vettori was Mr Spirit of Cricket. Under Brendon McCullum, New Zealand have coninued down that path. But to focus solely on Vettori's manner is to do him a disservice. That he joined Kapil Dev and Ian Botham as the only men to score 4000 runs and take 300 wickets in Test cricket tells of his immense talent. If Richard Hadlee is New Zealand's greatest bowler, Vettori is their finest spinner.

Enough said: Daniel Vettori has been a darling among the New Zealand masses © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

In 1997, when Vettori at 18 became the youngest Test cricketer in New Zealand's history, he had just enrolled in a health sciences course at university and wanted to become a pharmacist. You could easily picture the bespectacled Vettori behind the counter helping patients. Instead he dispensed more than 43,000 red and white pills to batsmen over the next 18 years.

His subtle variations in bounce and spin, his mastery of drift and drop, these were the weapons that brought Vettori 362 Test wickets and 305 in one-day internationals. He often troubled the Australians at a time when they were the world's best side, and his career-best 12 wickets in the Auckland Test of 1999-2000 gave New Zealand a realistic chance of a historic victory.

But when New Zealand finally beat Australia in Hobart in 2011, their first Test win over their trans-Tasman rivals for more than 18 years, Vettori watched from the sidelines. He had missed the match due to a hamstring injury. Only 34 of his 112 Tests for New Zealand resulted in victories, but he finished Test cricket on a high, with an innings win over Pakistan in Sharjah last November.

That Vettori was even able to play that match was testament to his determined nature. Some people assumed he had already retired from Test cricket, having not played since 2012. Persistent back problems had troubled him for years, and in October he told ESPNcricinfo that his fitness concerns were "a bit of everything - you get to a certain age and things start to give up."

But the lure of a fifth World Cup campaign was so strong that he pushed through, and was the tournament's leading spinner. New Zealand sides of the past two decades have not always looked threatening, but opponents knew that whenever Vettori was present there was at least one bowler who must be respected, and a lower-order batsman who would be hard to budge.

Six Test centuries were evidence of Vettori's competitive nature. His range of strokes was limited, but he would not give up his wicket without a fight. This was a man who wanted to be in the game at all times. His mother Robyn once recalled how distraught an 11-year-old Vettori was when a bus driver forgot to take him to Auckland for an Under-14 representative soccer tournament.

"There was this absolute competitiveness there," Robyn told ESPNcricinfo in 2010. "Contained, but competitive and a quiet confidence in himself."

Vettori was raised by parents Renzo and Robyn in Hamilton. Renzo's parents had moved to New Zealand from Italy, but loved seeing their grandson hit the big time. "It was nuts," Renzo said in 2010. "They suddenly became cricket experts. It was the last thing they knew, or thought they knew."

Robyn and Renzo were far more nervous than their son when they watched him make his Test debut against England in Wellington. His calm nature was present even then, and belied his age. Upon his call-up, one of the New Zealand newspapers printed a back-page with headline that screamed: "But he's only 18!" New Zealand fans might today be screaming: "But he's only 36!"

That means Vettori has spent half his life playing cricket at the highest level. It takes its toll; it was no surprise to see him limping through the World Cup final with a calf injury. The time has come. Few international cricketers inspire universal praise and admiration. Vettori was one of them. And in this most understated of retirements, we again saw why.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale