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March 26, 2008
New Zealand's captain, Daniel Vettori, couldn't hide his disappointment as his side's three-year unbeaten run in home Test series came to an end, but he admitted that the better team had won in the end as England came from behind in the three-Test series to secure a memorable 2-1 series result.
"It was a pretty competitive Test series all the way through," said Vettori, "but England grabbed vital chances and probably in the end were deserved winners. We failed to capitalise on key sessions, which is bitterly disappointing after where we were at Hamilton."
New Zealand's squad had been flushed with optimism after their emphatic 189-run victory in the first Test in Hamilton, but they were unable to consolidate their position thanks largely to the efforts of England's Man of the Series, Ryan Sidebottom, who time and again ripped through a fragile top order to finish with 24 wickets at 17.08 for the series.
"You have to admire how well Sidebottom bowled throughout the series," said Vettori. "Every time they needed a lift he came in and gave it to them. With his length of spells and consistency, he set himself up as a world-class bowler. I'm disappointed but I can appreciate some good bowling."
Nevertheless, New Zealand didn't help themselves with the brittleness of their top order. Matthew Bell and Mathew Sinclair both endured dreadful series, mustering less than 200 runs between them, and Vettori admitted that, with the tour of England looming large, he could see no quick fix to a problem that had dogged New Zealand cricket for years.
"We've certainly got the bowling nucleus of a good side," he said. "From five down it's a settled side. But we've got to find that top four that can survive in Test cricket and prosper as well. If I'm being honest it's been a problem for a long, long time in New Zealand cricket, and it's caught us out again today. There's no magic cure for it."
New Zealand's problems are compounded by the retirement of Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's leading run-scorer in Test history, and one of only a handful to average 40 over a lengthy career span. A tour of England in May is no time for unsettled batsmen to try to find their feet in damp seaming conditions, and Vettori admitted he didn't know whether to stick or twist with the players at his disposal.
"If we went for fresh blood, would they be battling against a tougher set of circumstances in early May in England, or do you settle for the tried and tested and give them one more chance?" he asked. "I think there's a balance between the two. I imagine there will be some fresh blood, and chances are there for whoever steps up and performs."
One batsman that New Zealand do not need to worry about is Ross Taylor, who began the series with a Test average of 17, but pushed himself forward as the new bedrock of the middle-order with 310 runs in the series, a tally that included a match-winning hundred at Hamilton, and a defiant 74 on the last day of the series.
"Ross has been fantastic and has matured quite quickly," said Vettori. "Some thought that he could be brash and give his wicket away at times, but we've seen throughout the series, he's a polished batsman and can be a great product for a number of years for New Zealand cricket.
|"If we went for fresh blood, would they be battling against a tougher set of circumstances in early May in England, or do you settle for the tried and tested and give them one more chance?" - Daniel Vettori on New Zealand's fragile top order|
It was suggested that New Zealand's aggression had contributed to their downfall, particularly around the lower-middle order, where Brendon McCullum had a hit-and-miss series of fast but brief scoring. Vettori disagreed, however, and once again pinpointed the failings of the proper batsmen in setting a decent platform.
"Most middle-to-bottom orders are aggressive, but if the score is 50 for 4, it's tough," said Vettori. "I put it to the top order to find the runs to allow the bottom order to flourish. If we can find some openers and a No. 3 and 4, we can settle into a really good team. Until then we'll need a Ross or a Jacob [Oram] or a Brendon to get us out of the mire, as we've been in the last couple of Tests."
One area where Vettori has no immediate concerns is with their new fast-bowling discovery, Tim Southee, who capped an astonishing debut by slogging nine sixes in a 40-ball 77, to delay England's march to victory on the final afternoon. He had earlier taken 5 for 55 during England's first-innings collapse, and at the age of 19, he is already being seen as the future of New Zealand cricket.
"I didn't have to talk to him all that much, he's a polished product," said Vettori. "He knew the lengths he needed to bowl, he bowled the bouncer when it was appropriate, he bowled a yorker when appropriate. For a 19-year-old to have the gift of the knowledge of the game, it's pretty exciting. He swings it at a good pace, and then there's his batting. He's been a quick learner all his career, and he's an exciting prospect."
As one chapter opens in New Zealand cricket, however, another closes, and Vettori paid a handsome tribute to the retiring Fleming, under whom he made his Test debut as an 18-year-old schoolboy in 1996-97. "He's been a wonderful servant of the game and a very good friend," said Vettori. "I've played 77 of my 80 Tests with him, so we've had an exceptional amount of cricket together.
"I've loved learning from him and playing with him, and I've loved the way he's played the game. I know he's disappointed about the milestones he did not get, but anyone who enjoys watching cricket will love the way Stephen Fleming batted. They may have been frustrated at times, as he is, but I've loved watching him play, and playing under him for 10 years, which really inspired me to want to be a captain. I hope he's remembered as one of New Zealand's greats, because he deserves to be there."