South Africa v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Port Elizabeth, 4th day January 14, 2013

The cycle begins again for NZ

New Zealand's performances against South Africa suggest they are back to the starting blocks in Test cricket

The development of a butterfly has four stages. It starts as an egg, grows into a caterpillar, enters a metamorphosing pupa phase and, finally, becomes a grown adult. If Brendon McCullum's theory is to be believed, New Zealand are still eggs.

"This team and its life cycle is different to the South African team," he said, before glumly admitting that he could not think of a time when they had been fully formed. "It would have been a fair few years ago, I guess. There have been constant changes, be it for injuries or other reasons. This team is pretty young, as a group we haven't been exposed to such hostile cricket before."

To ask McCullum to remember the home triumphs over India and West Indies in 2002, or the win over Australia in Hobart last summer, or the recent win over Sri Lanka in Colombo, may be inappropriate in the aftermath of two crushing defeats. But his inability to recall a time when New Zealand had a solid grip over Test cricket seems to point to a harsher reality about their status.

McCullum is correct in his explanation of his team now because they exit this series as a unit searching for a beginning. With a batting line-up unable to hold their own, and bowlers who are constantly under strain because of that, the wide lens would say New Zealand have to start from scratch. The zoom will reveal more specific points for restructure.

The opening partnership has already been discussed, and in defeat McCullum conceded that is in area that will be reviewed. "We have to confront the new ball with some steel and some resolve," he said. But it is not the only area that could face overhaul.

New Zealand do not have a top six any bowling attack in the world would be nervous of. Occasionally, as BJ Watling and Dean Brownlie showed, they are able to put together a partnership or two. But those stands do not threaten; they merely irritate.

Once they are broken, the roadblock clears itself en masse, as Graeme Smith explained: "They were able to put small partnerships together but once we had broken through, we were able to run through them." New Zealand did not have a single century stand in the series, with their highest being 98 between Brownlie and Watling in this match. They had three half-century partnerships across the two matches.

Popular opinion is that the return of Ross Taylor will go a long way to changing that. Taylor is regarded among New Zealand's best batsmen and even if he does not come back to lead them (which seems to be the case), his contributions to the run chart will be needed. Taylor is due to play first-class cricket in the lead-up to the England series, which has been earmarked as his comeback.

McCullum is looking forward to it but spoke about it in the same way the England camp described Kevin Pietersen's return. "Reintegration must be smooth. I am sure he wants to come back and do well for New Zealand," he said. His choice of the R-word was interesting because, unlike Pietersen, Taylor was not the main protagonist in his own demise.

"We trained hard but the ability to transfer that on to game day is what we need to work on. We've also got a pretty good blueprint of how the best team in the world goes about their business"
Brendon McCullum

Poor communication and the coach, Mike Hesson's lack of faith in his ability to captain led to him being left out, not shenanigans like text messages and being a cause of dressing-room disharmony. Many of New Zealand's players support Taylor - Martin Guptill, whose Twitter profile picture is of the two of them together, most obviously. Even Hesson, who has had differences with Taylor, admits that the team would be stronger with him in it.

If Taylor's return is a given, New Zealand's line-up will have a more solid look to it. McCullum will ponder moving down the order and there may be a move to bring Luke Ronchi in to keep wicket so BJ Watling can be promoted up the line-up. A certain amount of toying with combinations will be needed to get the best six in order, but it does not seem an impossible ask.

The bowling department is a simple puzzle for New Zealand to solve. Tim Southee will return to fitness soon, giving them back the leader of the attack, and Trent Boult was impressive in South Africa. Their veteran seamer Chris Martin said he believes Southee, Boult and Bracewell will form the pack that will take New Zealand into the future. If they all click, they could form a formidable trio.

Questions will still be asked of the spinner. Jeetan Patel may end up fighting Bruce Martin for a place. Todd Astle is also in the mix as is Tarun Nethula, but given New Zealand's other talking points, this one may fall slightly under the radar.

The tactics will definitely change but McCullum is warning against sweeping personnel changes because it will affect team culture. "There needs to be a little bit of change, but at the same time have to protect the core of the group," he said. "Players have come over here and learnt from the best. We are trying to find the right balance."

In experimentation, New Zealand have ended up falling to some of their heftiest defeats, but McCullum said there were things they could take out of the South Africa trip, like commitment to the cause. "I can't fault the preparation. It's hard to replicate facing guys like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in the nets but I can't fault the efforts. We trained hard but the ability to transfer that on to game day is what we need to work on. We've also got a pretty good blueprint of how the best team in the world goes about their business."

Something McCullum will want to take note of is that the current No. 1 side also started as eggs. They spent years in the interim phases, building for what they have achieved now. Some of that time was spent in frustration, some of it was in losing, but through consistency, South Africa learnt to turn that around. From being defeated, they turned into being defensive and eventually were able to transform that to winning. That is the kind of cycle New Zealand will want to replicate.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • corey on January 16, 2013, 10:05 GMT

    ronchi is a far better bet than watling, safer with the gloves and the bat, just hasnt had as much batting

  • Ian on January 15, 2013, 16:36 GMT

    South Africa might have started as eggs, but never have they looked as vulnerable as New Zealand even at their strongest post-Hadlee. Sir Richard almost single-handedly made them competitive in the 80s, and the loss of Shane Bond, their only world-class bowler who would have made it into a World XI, was really tragic. New Zealand try really hard and have a good spirit, but don't really seem to have any consistent anchors to build the team around - McCullum and Taylor are fighters, but do not dominate the bowling often enough, while Williamson, for all his undoubted ability, lacks a certain presence. Even the West Indies at their most heartbreaking nadir had Chanderpaul, Sarwan and Gayle who could change a match for them occasionally. Here's hoping they turn things around really fast, but - no real shame in being thrashed by a South African unit who would most likely have thrashed anyone in world cricket right now.

  • harmony on January 15, 2013, 16:10 GMT

    for me it was totally embarassing watching my beloved black caps getdestroyed this series we need a new opening partnership taylor ryder vettori southee back with the inclusion of ronchi why not look at someone like sinclair to open avg 48 at first class level give him one last crack rutherford munro could do with more time to develope my test team watling brownlie mccullum taylor ryder williamson ronchi vettori southee boult milne i will have milne over bracewell simply koz hes fast brownlie to open as an experimentation with sinclair to come in if that fails

  • Simon on January 15, 2013, 14:35 GMT

    I think the Kiwis need to realise that McCullum is not good enough to play as a batsman alone. Give him back the gloves, and stick him down the order so he comes in when the ball is older and he can play aggressively without needing to worry about the moving ball.

    A middle order of Williamson, Taylor, Ryder,Watling and McCullum looks like a pretty solid no.s 3-7. Vettori (or other spinner if he is injured), Southee, Bracewell and Boult complete the bowling attack (Ryder and Williamson can be the 5th bowler). All you need is to find a stable opening partnership (Guptill and ...?).

    At the very least leave Watling in the gloves. If you want him up the order move him, dont bring in anotehr keeper as they are typically weaker batsmen.

  • Soso on January 15, 2013, 8:56 GMT

    New Zealand will bounce back they are a proud nation full of fighters as well.

  • Philip on January 15, 2013, 7:43 GMT

    On the subject of small population and, thus, a small talent pool - yes, NZ is similar to Victoria or NSW. But let's not kid ourselves that the more populous Australian states don't waste talent. Of course they do. If they handled things better, they could produce even more players. Trinidad and Tobago, at times, would beat NZ. T&T's population and economy is hardly NZ's equal. Population mass helps cover lazy admin, coaching and selection, but as India shows it doesn't manage entirely to gloss over all the ails. NZ have done well before and they can consistently do well again, but before that can happen serious changes must be made.

  • Philip on January 15, 2013, 7:29 GMT

    NZ cricket looks about as flat as Zeeland, and most parts of that Dutch province are only kept out of water by dykes. NZ cricket, sans Vettori, Tayor and Southee, has nothing to keep anyone or anything at bay. The 20-year olds currently doing the rounds of the Plunkett Shield obviously need a better standard of competition in order to meet the coming challenges. Batting averages obtained in the PS are clearly not worth the paper they're written on. Maybe there's too much T20, but NZ teams have hardly set the world on fire in the Champions League either. I think its time for an Australasian competition where Kiwis can be tested more. By that I don't mean that Oz has all the answers. I think NZ cricket would be far better served by appointing some of their own to senior coaching positions. However, it is only in a stronger domestic competition with different conditions that the opportunities for real improvement shall come. And by picking the right ones to give those opportunities to.

  • jared on January 15, 2013, 7:25 GMT

    surprised williamson doesn't come under fire for his failings, he has real trouble with balls bowled on a 5th stump line, balls he doesn't even need to play at, nowhere near his stumps yet keeps knicking them. 3 centuries at 21 and clearly the future of our batting line up we will persivere with him for some time yet but needs to sort it soon, england will know where to target him. I'd like to see him serve an apprenticeship further down the order. XI for england mccullum, rutherford, brownlie, taylor, ryder(carl cachopa) williamson, watling, astle, southee, milne, boult. Actually perfer sohdi as a spinner but astle being a former opener might steel up the lower order a bit and actually turns the ball same can't be said for vettori, guptil had to go and leave watling where he's performing, milne adds strike power to compliment the swing of southee and boult, bracewell wasn't cutting it, got to do better surely.

  • Ashish on January 15, 2013, 6:25 GMT

    It is actually T20 which is spoiling the batsmen techniquies more than anything else, since the retirement of flemming, astle, mccmilan , and moreover now ross taylor is also not playing , kiwis which was once my one the fav. team has gone down in all the three formats !! they need to find the real talent !!

  • Che on January 15, 2013, 5:09 GMT

    @cricketlord2011 Ryder is playing for Wellington not Central Districts. As for this going "...back over a decade..." to when he wasn't picked in his early 20s well that's just incorrect. Ryder is 28, a decade ago he was 18. You are correct he is snubbing NZ cricket though, probably because they mistreated him like they've mistreated Taylor.