December 24, 2010

The lowest ebb

For New Zealand, this will forever be remembered as the year they were thrashed by Bangladesh

This week New Zealand sacked their coach of less than a year, Mark Greatbatch. The previous mentor, Andy Moles, hadn't lasted much longer. That tells you all you need to know about the current state of the New Zealand side. But there was some light at the end of a gloomy year: the sight of John Wright, a highly respected and well-credentialled international coach, taking charge of the squad.

Wright can't be expected to singlehandedly lift New Zealand out of their mire, but his appointment is a good start. And in searching for improvement, he's working from a pretty low base. This year brought the team one win - against Bangladesh - from six Tests, though that wasn't terrible given two were against an in-form Australia earlier in the year and two of three Tests in India were drawn.

The bigger worry was New Zealand's slump in one-day internationals, the arena in which they've traditionally punched above their weight. By suffering 11 straight defeats, including clean sweeps against Bangladesh and India, they have not only endured their longest losing streak since 1995, they've also sunk themselves into a major trough two months out from the World Cup, which will be held in the countries that hosted their losses.

Traditionally New Zealand step up at the World Cup. Five times they've reached the semi-finals, outlasting more fancied rivals, but to achieve the same result in 2011 they'll need a major change of fortunes. And as good a coach as Wright may be, he can only work with the players at his disposal. To that end, losing Shane Bond to retirement in May was a blow.

But there have been some positive signs. Kane Williamson is only 20 but already looms as an important man in the long-term future of the New Zealand side. He showed his class with a century on his Test debut, and if he continues along the same path he will relieve some of the pressure on the more established batsmen like Ross Taylor.

In allowing Brendon McCullum to give up the gloves in Tests, and moving him up the order, New Zealand might just have solved the opening problem that has bothered them since Mark Richardson retired at the end of 2004. Tim McIntosh has proven a steady hand at the tiller but BJ Watling appeared out of his depth opening at Test level. Imagine the cheers from New Zealand fans, then, when McCullum moved up to open on the tour of India and promptly made 225 in Hyderabad, bettering the career-best 185 he'd set batting down the order against Bangladesh earlier in the year. A successful McCullum makes a big difference to New Zealand's Test hopes, and he averaged 75.80 with three centuries this year.

There was also a renaissance from Chris Martin, the ageing seamer who was so ineffective against Australia in March that his international future looked to be in serious doubt. But in Ahmedabad in November he produced the performance of a lifetime, bowling fast, finding unplayable swing and reducing India to a position from which they feared an unthinkable loss to New Zealand. Harbhajan Singh's counterattacking century salvaged a draw, but Martin's career was firmly back on track, and at 36 he remains a key man in a pace attack lacking experience. That the tour of India produced two draws before a loss in the third Test was something of an achievement for New Zealand: the previous month Australia had gone there and lost 0-2.

But then the 5-0 ODI loss to India followed, as did the NZC review, and Greatbatch was gone as coach and Daniel Vettori was dropped from the selection panel. It wasn't the way Vettori wanted to finish a year in which he played his 100th Test, but he has a chance to help his side make amends at the World Cup.

High point
It's a measure of how bad this year has been for New Zealand that one of their best moments was getting their man, Alan Isaac, in position to become the next ICC president. Some fans might say the high point was finally enticing John Wright to become the coach. Oh, and they won the ICC Spirit of Cricket Award. On-field, in a year with few highlights, beating India by 200 runs in an ODI in Dambulla, was a standout, as was the discovery of Williamson, and keeping India to 0-0 after the first two Tests.

Low point
Losing 0-4 to Bangladesh in a one-day series wasn't just a low point for this year, it was one of New Zealand's most disappointing results in recent memory. Greatbatch said the team "played like dicks", and it was hard to disagree. The clean sweep led to the first of two reviews by NZC, but things didn't get much better, as the limited-overs whitewash by India was to follow.

New kid on the block
Williamson became the eighth New Zealander to score a century on his Test debut when he compiled 131 against India in Ahmedabad. His talent was identified early and he has been monitored by the powers that be for some years, and at 20, he is the future of New Zealand cricket.

What 2011 holds
Judging by New Zealand's current form, expectations for the World Cup should not be too high. In the longer format, they begin with two Tests at home against Pakistan, which are winnable, and then there's a big gap in the calendar for the rest of the year, until a likely two Tests in Australia in November.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at Cricinfo