Test cricket used to have rest days, but for New Zealand 2007 was more of a rest year. They played two Tests and the way they performed in those games in South Africa, they might as well have declared it the year of coloured clothing.
And yet, for all their lack of Test action, New Zealand have endured a rather busy 12 months. They changed captains for the first time in a decade, lost two veteran batsmen to retirement and another, younger, man to the more profitable county scene, and were an even-money bet to axe their coach after their World Cup exit. So much for a quiet year.
John Bracewell survived a review of his role as the coach and earned a two-year extension, but he might have wished he departed when he had the chance. That way New Zealand's woeful Test series in South Africa would have been somebody else's problem. Their highest total in four innings was 188, the second Test was over in three days, and to add injury to insult, Shane Bond was again sidelined, this time with an abdominal strain. They looked as comfortable in white as Johnny Cash.
When they were the men in black, they were far less disappointing. The squad reached the final four at the World Cup, but a comprehensive defeat to Sri Lanka in the semi-final annoyed their fans and administrators. That it was the fifth time they had been knocked out in a World Cup semi-final would have been frustrating. A similar fate awaited them at the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa, where they beat the eventual champions India, but were farewelled with a semi-final loss to Pakistan.
Their major success came in February when they upset Australia with a 3-0 whitewash at home to secure the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy. The New Zealand batsmen were superb - there's a phrase that has become all too rare - during that series, and recorded two of the three highest ODI chases in history when they overhauled Australia's totals of 336 and 346. But they didn't get to hold the prize for even a year, as Australia returned the favour with a convincing 2-0 turnaround in December.
The February triumph, however, helped them find their form after they had failed to reach the finals of the Australian tri-series. They carried that momentum to the Caribbean, where they won all their pool matches and helped knock South Africa out of the event with a five-wicket win in Grenada. Scott Styris was brilliant on the near two-month trip and finished as the tournament's fourth-highest run-scorer, with 499 at 83.16. His only century came in their Super Eights loss to Sri Lanka and he remained unbeaten within sight of triple-figures in their wins over England and West Indies.
|New Zealand reached the final four at the World Cup, but a comprehensive defeat to Sri Lanka in the semi-final annoyed their fans and administrators. That it was the fifth time they had been knocked out in a World Cup semi-final would have been frustrating|
But New Zealand were slaughtered by Australia in their last Super Eights match and they couldn't lift themselves for the semi-final, which Sri Lanka won by 81 runs. It resulted in a quick announcement from Fleming that he was quitting the one-day captaincy, but intended to stay on as a limited-overs batsman. However, as New Zealand reviewed their situation his future became less clear and eventually he was stripped of the Test captaincy and quit ODIs completely. A big-money offer from the Indian Cricket League (ICL) tempted him, but he chose to stick around on the Test scene at least until mid-2008.
Fleming's departure was delayed but there were a few farewells for New Zealand in 2007. Hamish Marshall might one day be back, although for now he has decided that using his Irish passport to play county cricket in England as a local player is a more attractive option than making sporadic appearances for the national side.
The brothers-in-law Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle will not return. While Astle's retirement was not completely unexpected, his timing was a major surprise. A press conference in Perth midway through the CB Series, six weeks before the World Cup, was a strange place to say goodbye. He cited a lack of motivation, and just like that, a 12-year international career was over.
As good a batsman as Astle was, McMillan was in better form leading up to his departure. After his recall McMillan showed a glimpse of his brilliance with 89 against Australia in the CB Series in Sydney, so they shouldn't have been surprised by his audacious 117 from 96 balls as New Zealand chased down 346 in the Chappell-Hadlee decider in Hamilton.
He then became New Zealand's leading run-scorer at the World Twenty20 before retiring due to health and personal reasons. The Twenty20 form made McMillan a desirable target for the ICL, who signed him up, ensuring he would not need to rush out and search for a new career, as he did when he was dumped from the national side at the end of 2005 and had considered becoming a salesman.
New Zealand have had a year of change. They enter 2008 with a new captain, without some familiar names, and with a much more demanding Test schedule. At least their first battles shouldn't be too dangerous - they have two Tests at home against Bangladesh in January. New Zealand's Test rest year is officially over.
New man on the block
Mark Gillespie. Trying new faces wasn't high on the agenda in 2007, but Gillespie held his own as a fresh member of the attack. He debuted just before the new year, in the Sri Lanka ODIs, held his spot through the tri-series in Australia, and earned a World Cup trip. Although he occasionally leaked big runs, Gillespie bowled with deceptive speed and rattled through Kenya with 4 for 7 at the World Twenty20. His Test debut followed against South Africa and his 5 for 136 meant the series was not a complete waste of time for New Zealand.
Stephen Fleming. The past decade in New Zealand cricket can be described as the Fleming era. He was the constant in a squad that changed markedly over his 10 years in charge and 2007 will be remembered as the end of that period. His days as an international batsman are undoubtedly coming to a close, but he was the only man to score a Test half-century for New Zealand and there should be a few Tests left in him still.
A clean sweep is good reason to celebrate, but a clean sweep against the world champions in the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy is just about worthy of a national holiday. Australia were without Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Clarke, but it didn't matter - it was New Zealand's batsmen, not their bowlers, who won this contest. They twice chased down scores of 330-plus and the resurgent McMillan was one of the major architects of the carnage.
The Test squad that visited South Africa was not a total write-off but some serious panel-beating may be required before it is in working order for its next outing. New Zealand lost 0-2 and Ric Charlesworth, the departing high-performance manager, said the results highlighted to outsiders what the team management had known for a long time: "We don't have quality, sustainable batting and that's the area where we are most deficient." Mark Richardson declared that a lack of genuine fast bowling was their problem. Oh well, at least they have a good spinner.
What does 2008 hold?
Much more Test cricket, and a chance to start defining the Vettori era. They need to ease up on the top-order chopping and changing and decide on a preferred Test line-up. Do they stick with Craig Cumming and Michael Papps as openers? Who will replace Fleming at No. 3 if he retires? Is there a place for consistent domestic run-scorers like Mathew Sinclair and Matthew Bell? They start with two Tests against Bangladesh in January, three winnable Tests at home against England follow, and then they have a challenging three games in England. They'll want to have improved by the time they play two Tests in Australia in November, and a three-Test series at home against West Indies starts in December. That's 13 Tests, and New Zealand have a good chance to win at least half of them.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo