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January 10, 2013
Brendon McCullum has been around international cricket for long enough to know when someone is grandstanding for the media. He will know that when Graeme Smith offered him a piece of advice, not voluntarily but, after being asked by a journalist, it was not one of those times.
With Smith close to ten years in the job and McCullum only entering his second match as leader of the Test team, the South African stalwart was invited to share his thoughts on what his counterpart may be going through and how he should handle it. "A game like Newlands gets you to ask questions and Brendon might be feeling the heat especially with everything that has gone on," Smith said, referring to the Ross Taylor debacle.
"I've been there, you have to try and keep a level head and inner strength of character is crucial; just not get too emotional. When there is a lot of noise around you, you have to focus on how to get your team through that noise," Smith concluded.
The noise around New Zealand has only got louder with news of another injury. Despite a late fitness test, James Franklin was ruled out of the second Test. He is New Zealand's third major injury of the series with Daniel Vettori and Tim Southee having not even made it to South Africa.
It leaves New Zealand needing to debut Colin Munro, who does not have the bowling credentials of Franklin but has batting numbers to back him up. Munro is currently second on the Plunket Shield standings with 623 runs from four matches including three centuries, one of which was an unbeaten 269.
"He likes to play the game with a free spirit, and he has earned the right to be in this team," McCullum said. More importantly, it seems he has some staying power at the crease, something New Zealand are desperate for and McCullum hopes he can play a "counterattacking role" at No.7.
Given the performance in the first innings of the Newlands Test, it may turn out to be a positive that New Zealand were forced to tinker with the batting because they were due to stick to the same combination at St George's. Instead, the area they were going to change was the bowling. Chris Martin's three wickets in Cape Town, while crucial in forcing the South African declaration, were not deemed enough to keep his spot.
New Zealand are looking for aggression, so much so that they asked their bowlers to run in hard at their own batsmen in the nets this week. They believe Neil Wagner will provide that. "When you look at the South African line-up, there is a bit of discrepancy between theirs and ours. The aim at practice was two-fold: to toughen our batsman up and to get the bowlers more positive."
Ironically, it seems New Zealand are looking to answer the question of how to beat South Africa by including South Africans in their team. Munro and BJ Watling were both born in Durban before moving to New Zealand in their early years while Wagner was educated at the same school as AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis before trying to make it in England and then relocating to New Zealand.
It's always a talking point when South Africa play against countrymen who have changed nationalities but McCullum has far bigger things to worry about. After the first session in Cape Town, all his squad's hard-work from the days before was undone and they do not want to repeat that in Port Elizabeth.
New Zealand spent the weekend training and they had full sessions every day in the lead up to the Test, contrasting starkly with their opposition who took three days off, had two practices and one optional session. They are serious about getting better and hopeful that the slow pitch at St Georges will aid them because it may be more like home.
"We don't overlook what happened in that first innings in Cape Town, but we can't dwell on that kind of stuff otherwise it affects ability and confidence," McCullum said. "We made some really good adjustments in a short space of time and showed some qualities that we want to be known for as New Zealand cricketers. There were some really tough times that we will never live down but at the same time, we have to learn lessons from that. We've got a team that we think is capable of performing in these conditions."
So have they blocked out the screams for the coach to go, the administrators to answer tough questions, Taylor to make a return and the line-up to change dramatically? "What's going on is going on; we've got a job to do," McCullum said. "We want to play with as much pride and capability as we can. We know people want a fighting performance from us and we want to deliver that." No grandstanding there either. Just desperate honesty.
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