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Despite Vettori's best efforts, his side fell to the bottom of the table in 2008
December 29, 2008
The consensus when John Bracewell stood down this month after five years as New Zealand's coach was that he had only done half the job. They had established themselves as a consistently threatening one-day side during his reign, but in the Test arena their poor results had become as predictable as Chris Martin's batting. Never was that frustrating split more apparent than in Bracewell's last year at the helm.
New Zealand's Test schedule had been light in recent seasons; they played only ten Tests in 2006 and 2007 combined. In 2008 they played 14 Tests and won four but three of those victories came against Bangladesh. The most revealing moment came when they lost to Australia in Adelaide and slipped to eighth on the ICC's Test rankings - effectively last, as only Bangladesh were below them.
In the limited-overs format they thrived, with 10 wins from 15 ODIs. They didn't lose a series, beating England at home and away and expectedly triumphing against Ireland, Scotland and Bangladesh. The new coach, Andy Moles, faces the task of developing a team that can perform in both versions. At least he has some of the building blocks.
After a year of change in 2007, when they lost Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan and Hamish Marshall to the ICL, there were a couple of even more important departures in 2008. Within the first few weeks of the year, Shane Bond had headed for the ICL and his New Zealand career was over. Stephen Fleming also retired after the home series against England, although his exit was as inevitable as the prime minister, Helen Clark, losing office.
Jesse Ryder, Daniel Flynn, Tim Southee and Tim McIntosh all debuted and showed promise. Iain O'Brien went from a battling trundler to the world's No. 11 wicket-taker for the year. He also turned into a highly entertaining blogger. Ross Taylor consolidated his reputation with the first two centuries of his Test career.
But for all the potential that their emerging men displayed, far too much was left up to the new captain Daniel Vettori. That he was their leading Test wicket-taker by a considerable margin was not surprising - he collected 54 at 26.12 - but that he was third on their batting List with 672 runs at 35.36 was a sad reflection of their top-order woes.
The incessant chopping and changing with the opening roles continued. Craig Cumming and Matthew Bell began as the first-choice pair, Bell and Jamie How were tried, then How and Aaron Redmond, and finally How and McIntosh. And now How is struggling, so who knows how long the current combination will last. It has created instability for the middle order - hardly ideal with young batsmen trying to find their feet at Nos. 3, 4 and 5. Flynn, Taylor and Ryder could provide New Zealand with a firm batting core in the future, although 2008 was hit and miss for the trio.
When Flynn arrived on the scene during the tour of England, he would have preferred miss than the hit he received. In his second Test, at Old Trafford, he was struck in the face by a James Anderson bouncer and lost a couple of teeth. Flynn walking off the ground with a bloodied mouth was one of the enduring images of the year in New Zealand cricket, but the way he returned to perform solidly for the remainder of the year proved the team had found a fighter.
The tour of England provided another memorable image when Vettori and Brendon McCullum shouted their disapproval from the players' balcony at The Oval after England's ODI captain, Paul Collingwood, declined to recall Grant Elliott, who had been run out after colliding with the bowler, Ryan Sidebottom. New Zealand went on to win the series 3-1.
At Test level they struggled to match England; they won the first home Test, in Hamilton, and drew at Lord's, but lost the other four Tests in the home-and-away tours. They were not helped by the absence of senior men like Vettori and McCullum for the start of the tour after they were given permission to stay longer in the IPL, where McCullum's incredible 158 in the opening match had set the tone for the tournament.
A visit to Bangladesh brought more concerns than it should have; they lost the first ODI and only won the Chittagong Test because Vettori carried the side with bat and ball. The signs were not good ahead of a tour to Australia and the comprehensive 2-0 loss to the No. 1 team was not a major surprise, although Southee continued to show his potential as a dangerous swing bowler after bursting onto the scene with a five-wicket haul on debut against England in Napier.
A more closely-fought home series against West Indies followed, but a 0-0 draw was not the ideal result. It was the first time Moles had been in charge of the side; the coaching role was one of several management positions that altered during the year. And so a period of changes on field and off ended with New Zealand at the bottom of the Test table. The only way is up.
New man on the block
Jesse Ryder. Happily for New Zealand there were options in this category. Flynn and Southee in particular could be cornerstones of the line-up for the next few years. Ryder has the potential to be not only a key player but a cult hero. Unconventionally proportioned for a top-level cricketer, his international career got off to a smashing start in February when he slammed 79 from 62 balls in his second ODI, against England in Hamilton, and then it threatened to crash and burn when he put his fist through a bar-room window in Christchurch after a late night of drinking. He hurt his hand so badly that he could not make the tour of England, but on his return he showed promise in Tests against Bangladesh, and West Indies.
Stephen Fleming. It was strange that one of the most respected captains of the modern era farewelled the game not leading his side but as one of 10 men playing under the new skipper, Vettori. New Zealand fans knew at the start of the year the end was nigh for Fleming, although he surprised many by bowing out after the Napier Test against Michael Vaughan's men instead of kicking on for one last tour of England. He left the game with scores of 59 and 66 in his final Test and it was somehow appropriate for a man who, for all his talent, should have made more than nine Test centuries, having passed 50 on 55 occasions.
In Tests there were precious few; three of their four victories came against Bangladesh. Beating England in the first Test at home was the standout, but it was followed by a pair of defeats. The other high point for New Zealand in 2008 was coming back from 1-0 down after two games to beat England 3-1 in the one-day series in England. That arguably their best achievement came in an inconsequential limited-overs series says much about the state of cricket in New Zealand.
Losing to Australia was not unexpected but the consequences of New Zealand's defeat in the second Test in Adelaide made the outcome particularly disappointing. That game nudged them down the ICC rankings to below West Indies and Martin Crowe thought that was such a galling position to be in that it was quite possibly the country's worst moment in Test cricket.
What 2009 holds
For a team that clearly prefers the coloured clothing, next year thankfully features a less hectic Test schedule. They host India for two Tests in March-April and then head to Sri Lanka for three Tests in August. At least expectations will not be high in either series; India are one of the world's best sides and Sri Lanka at home have beaten India, South Africa and England in the past couple of years. A trip to Pakistan later in the year may or may not go ahead; the same for the Champions Trophy. The reality is that 2009 will be another development year for an evolving side. It will also start to show whether Moles can simultaneously run two successful sides instead of one, like his predecessor.