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December 14, 2012
To pretend the upcoming series between South Africa and New Zealand is only about cricket would be to remember Hansie Cronje without the match-fixing. Some are able to leave the pleasant parts untainted with the nasty stain of the unmentionables but for most it's unavoidable. At least Brendon McCullum, the New Zealand captain, is part of the latter camp.
An already challenging tour became much more difficult for New Zealand when Ross Taylor withdrew from the squad. It exposed an embarrassing miscommunication in the administration and although apologies have been issued since, it has still left New Zealand more vulnerable than they would otherwise have been.
"There's obviously been some distractions gone on back home but we know there is a monumental task in front of us. To take it on without some of our better players is disappointing but that's what we've got to do," McCullum said. "A New Zealand team with Ross Taylor involved is a lot stronger."
McCullum is hopeful Taylor will make a return and indications are that he will (though no one knows when) but that is not all the stand-in captain has to think about. Issues aside, New Zealand are also without Daniel Vettori who has not recovered from injury, leaving them without two of their mainstays.
That has left McCullum with the dual role of uniting a fractured unit and overseeing the integration of new players. With a brave face, he accepted both tasks. "We've got a number of big losses throughout our team at the moment but it is one thing to long for those guys to be present but it's another to get on with dealing with the resources you've got.
"We're going to find out a lot about the new guys in the next little while and they are going to be exposed to some pretty extreme circumstances so for the development of the squad and for those guys, it's a really exciting time. From a leadership point of view, we've got to find a way to use the resources we do have, rather than focus on what we don't have."
McCullum has five uncapped players in his Twenty20 squad to work with, including two left-arm bowlers who are likely to get their first taste of international cricket. Corey Anderson and Mitchell McClenaghan are the two being talked about by the coach Mike Hesson as ones to watch.
"We've got some guys with a bit of pace. They haven't got the records of the Dale Steyns or Morne Morkels but they've got some really good skills and hopefully we will see those skills unfold," McCullum said. The other three rookies are all-rounders Colin Munro and Jimmy Neesham, and wicketkeeper Derek de Boorder.
New Zealand's relative inexperience is matched by a similar pushing through of younger players in South Africa's plan. The hosts named four uncapped players in their T20 squad and have a new captain in Faf du Plessis. While New Zealand are still wary of South Africa, they also see opportunity.
"We know South Africa are going to be uncompromising, very fit, strong and disciplined. We know they are an extremely well-skilled team," McCullum said. "South Africa have got a form advantage over us but we're excited about the opportunity to play them. If we put them under pressure and get some of their inexperienced guys to have to deal with that pressure then maybe we will able to learn a bit about ourselves and hopefully come out on top."
Realistically, New Zealand are not expected to do anything more than put up a solid fight over their month in South Africa. It's the concern they will not be able to do even that which they want to quell and McCullum gave an assurance that despite the recent internal strife, New Zealand still have an eye on the game.
"We are a very proud, passionate sporting nation. Cricket is the No.2 sport in the country, it's our summer game and we have always had a lot of support and we hope to continue to do so. We want to make sure we raise our standing in world cricket."
Rather than continue to be a team that scraps to get something out of an impossible-looking situation, New Zealand want to become more consistent. "Historically we've performed a lot better when we've gone in as underdogs," McCullum said. "We want to try and continually improve our performance, not just perform at our best when we are in those situations but when we are expected to win games too."
One of those times is not now. If New Zealand shock South Africa it will be seen as possibly their biggest counterpunch yet. But McCullum is hopeful it could also become the start of a happier, stronger period for the team.
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