December 24, 2011

All dark for the Black Caps

The year started and ended well in terms of results. That apart, there was plenty of cause for despair

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II had one in 1992; the New Zealand cricket team had their annus horribilis this year. The only things royal about the latter were the levels of anger, pity, and later apathy, among New Zealand's fan base. The team largely capitulated at home against South Africa, away in the West Indies, and onward to India, the World Twenty20, and Sri Lanka.

The year was bookended by Test victories against Zimbabwe at home - a record innings and 301-run result in Napier, inside three days - and the gritty triumph against Sri Lanka in Colombo. There was little to celebrate in between, with six losses in the other eight Tests. Ten losses in 13 completed one-dayers didn't help, nor did six defeats in 15 T20 internationals - including two in Eliminator overs at the World Twenty20.

The year concluded with a festering public relations shambles over the captaincy. Few emerged with reputations unscathed.

John Wright left as coach after a disastrous West Indies tour, where the team lost all but a solitary one-dayer in nine internationals across the three formats. They were saved from too much scrutiny by the successful New Zealand Olympic campaign in London.

That highlighted another problem with the current regime. Media now rarely tour with the team because of the significant costs and the public's diminished interest. No print or radio media covered the Sri Lankan tour in November - the first time in years this had happened.

Mike Hesson was appointed coach from the India tour onwards.

The New Zealanders were credible at the World Twenty20, tying with both eventual finalists - the champions, West Indies, and Sri Lanka - but lacked killer instinct. Hesson then drew the ire of some when it was revealed he tried to convince Ross Taylor to stand down as captain ahead of the Sri Lanka Tests in November.

Individual highlights were few. Kane Williamson's 102 not out to draw the Wellington Test with South Africa was the gutsiest Test innings by a New Zealander in years, let alone by a 21-year-old in his 12th Test. He managed to pass 50 just once in his next ten Test innings trying to make the adjustment to No. 3, but struck back with a ton against Sri Lanka in the Colombo victory.

Tim Southee showed glimpses of becoming a Test bowling spearhead, with 25 wickets at 22.64 in six Tests after struggling to hold his place earlier in the season. At 24, Southee along with Trent Boult, 23, and Doug Bracewell, 22, are long-term pace prospects.

High hopes remain for BJ Watling as a Test wicketkeeper-batsman at No. 6; Daniel Flynn showed resilience at No. 5 in the Sri Lanka series; and Martin Guptill excelled in the West Indies Tests and Zimbabwe limited-overs matches but little else.

Jesse Ryder opted out of cricket for a while after an altercation with a fan in a Napier hotel in February. Daniel Vettori was hampered by injury for much of 2012 and missed the South African tour. The 33-year-old played just five Tests (the last against West Indies in July). He averaged 20.62 in eight innings batting and took five wickets at 87.80. Following his retirement from one-dayers after the World Cup, he returned to limited overs for the World Twenty20 but hobbled away for surgery on his hernia and Achilles tendon shortly afterwards.

Vettori's spin bowling successor is yet to be found. Jeetan Patel appears closer to the end than the start of his career, legspinner Tarun Nethula suffered the yips in India. Todd Astle, though, made a sound debut with bat and ball in Sri Lanka.

High point
The Test win over Sri Lanka was the most significant in purist terms. New Zealand had failed to beat them at home in more than 14 years. Facing a barrage of criticism after their second-innings capitulation in the first Test, Taylor and Williamson eked out centuries in a 262-run partnership for the third wicket, a record for any New Zealand pair in Sri Lanka. Taylor backed up with 74 in the second innings. Southee and Boult swung the visitors to victory with figures of 8 for 120 and 7 for 75 respectively. It was a crowning moment to a desperate performance that staved off equalling the New Zealand record of six defeats in a row, set in 1954-55.

Low point
Taylor produced a Man-of-the-Match batting performance in Colombo, bringing pride to New Zealand's dented ego. What was unknown at the time was that he had been subject to a meeting with Hesson, manager Mike Sandle and assistant coach Bob Carter before the series and asked if he'd make way as captain for Brendon McCullum. Taylor refused. When the same suggestion came post-Sri Lanka, in a catastrophic piece of timing, it exposed a team rift to a baying public. Bangladesh pushed New Zealand to ninth for the first time in the one-day world rankings the same week. It remains uncertain how tenable the Hesson/Taylor relationship can be in future.

New kid on the block
Trent Boult started the year with a question mark over his spot, given fellow left-armer, Neil Wagner, would soon be eligible. There was also competition to make the first XI from Southee, Doug Bracewell, Mark Gillespie and Chris Martin.

Boult has an immaculate wrist position that enables the ball to swing, and is now considered the logical new-ball partner to Southee. He has 26 wickets at 29.11 in eight Tests, including those of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Sachin Tendulkar, Chris Gayle, Mike Hussey, Jacques Kallis and Gautam Gambhir. More than half Boult's dismissals have been top-order players. He is already being considered an option in one-dayers, provided he adjusts his lengths and variations.

To put Boult's potential in context, only 15 left-arm pace bowlers have played for New Zealand. Richard Collinge (1965-78), with 116 wickets at 29.25 in 35 Tests, is the only other one to average under 30.

What 2013 holds
New Zealand's results in 2012 bode poorly. The leadership crisis has not helped. This is a team with everything to prove in South Africa, where they haven't won a Test since the sex, drugs and rock n' roll tour of 1994-95. In fact, New Zealand have only won three out of 21 against South Africa away in an 80-year Test history. The prospects of the eighth-ranked Test country unsettling the world No. 1 at home seem slim, as does the chance afterwards of rattling second-ranked England home or away. Still, hope springs eternal. Perhaps an annus mirabilis is closer than it seems.

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