December 26, 2011

There'll always be Hobart

New Zealand have looked a more confident unit since John Wright took charge at the beginning of 2011, and they had one standout success

Some will call it coincidence but new coach John Wright has instilled a sense of self-belief in the New Zealand team in 2011 that bodes well for the future. Wright lived up to his reputation as a coaching physician, coming to the role with the responsibility of curing ills and restoring pride in a dishevelled outfit. His team has work to do, but as World Cup semi-finalists and with a first Test win over Australia in 18 years, the evidence suggests New Zealand have progressed.

Wright looks to empower with positive thoughts rather than harsh words. Some comparisons have been stark. A team that won just a single one-dayer out of 12 on the subcontinent last year made the top four of the World Cup with "the locals" - Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan - for the first time in that part of the world. However, inconsistencies remain. New Zealand eased past Pakistan and South Africa but stumbled against Australia and Sri Lanka (twice).

In Tests, the win against Australia in Hobart broke a hoodoo and the team justifiably celebrated. Wright acknowledged there is more to do, but the result must have come with a dollop of satisfaction. Ross Taylor's bold declaration against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo also deserves praise. New Zealand won the Test by 34 runs thanks to a match-winning spell (5 for 85) by Doug Bracewell in the second innings. In contrast, Wright's first Test series with the team, a 0-1 loss against Pakistan in January, is best forgotten.

Wright has presented a genial yet calculated approach in his first year. Non-believers, who perceived him as dithering, have been forced to reconsider his method of hammering players with simple messages. Key examples are his limited-overs and Test batting plans. In one-dayers the aim is to be no more than three wickets down after 35 overs. At the World Cup against Pakistan (141 for 4) and South Africa (139 for 3) it worked. In Tests, Wright wants New Zealand to bat a minimum of four sessions per innings, preferably only using the top six to do so. New Zealand have managed that twice in ten innings on his watch.

Five Tests into his tenure the top six batsmen have made just 64% of the runs. That figure is accentuated by Daniel Vettori's prodigious run-scoring in the lower order. Compare those figures to world No. 1 England, where the top six have made 75% of the runs in 12 Tests since the start of the Ashes in November 2010. Further details indicate the consistency of England compared to New Zealand in that period. England had a batsman score a century in 13 of 17 innings (76%); New Zealand's figure was five in 16 (31%).

The absence of any cricket during the winter for New Zealand was probably a blessing, allowing most players to refresh or make a decent living from the Indian Premier League or at English counties.

New kid on the block
No batsman since Martin Crowe has excited New Zealand fans as much as Kane Williamson in the fledgling stages of his career. At 21 he already looks like Taylor's successor as captain. It is reassuring to watch a technique that doesn't leave you wanting to hide behind the sofa, peeping out to check for further scoreboard damage for New Zealand. Williamson's forward defence is immaculate and his back-foot work gifted, especially in milking ones and twos through the covers. Expect his Test average of 32.53 to rise closer to his first-class average of 42.92 this year. Williamson's 284 not out for Northern Districts against Wellington further demonstrated his application, and a season at Gloucestershire eased him into a professional rhythm. Some have questioned his ability to adapt to limited-overs cricket, but 38 not out off 41 balls in the World Cup quarter-final win over South Africa, 100 off 69 balls in Zimbabwe, and lithe fielding have highlighted his value.

High point
The Test win over Australia was the most significant in purist terms. They are an opponent New Zealand failed to beat in 18 years (26 years in Australia). It was a weak Australian side but so was the one New Zealand beat in Brisbane and Perth in 1985. Any win against arguably the most powerful country in the history of the game is significant. The seven-run victory was outstanding on several levels, especially considering it was achieved without the services of talisman Vettori. Bracewell, with match figures of 9 for 60, and Dean Brownlie, with a gutsy 56 in the first innings, shone as players of mental strength. The presence of youthful talent such as Williamson, Tim Southee and Martin Guptill suggests a Test boost from eighth in the world rankings is possible over the next year.

Low point
The capitulation to Australia at the World Cup in the wake of the February 22 Christchurch earthquake. The seven-wicket defeat began with a negative team selection that saw top-order batsman Jamie How inserted at No. 7 - as a buffer against Australia doing early damage. Having allowed the danger to enter their subconscious, New Zealand set about proving the threat was real when the top six made 58 in a total of 206. The bowling attack, with so few runs to defend, was hammered. Balls were sprayed down the leg side, overpitched, or dropped too short. There were 29 runs from wides. In the aftermath the team showed courage to fight back with memorable wins over Pakistan in pool play and South Africa in the quarter-finals.

What 2012 holds
From here the recipe is simple. Mix the John Wright coaching regime with a group of open-minded, tenacious players and an attitude of controlled aggression. That is the simplest way to return New Zealand to another successful era and eradicate public apathy.

In the next 13 months New Zealand are scheduled to play 14 Tests, 19 one-dayers and 10 T20s. This team, with its youthful core, can further establish itself on the international stage at home against Zimbabwe and South Africa before travelling to the West Indies, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Otago left-arm pace bowler Neil Wagner adds another option to the fast-bowling equation when he qualifies via residency in April. Shane Bond apart, pace bowling has long been a weakness for New Zealand, but it could soon turn into a strength, even when 37-year-old Chris Martin bows out. Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Bracewell, Hamish Bennett and Wagner look capable of producing useful Test careers.

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

Comments