James Franklin is one of the most enigmatic figures in New Zealand cricket. When he first made it into the national side 11 years ago, he was a bowler who could bat a bit. Strangely, he was mediocre with the ball and surprisingly talented with the bat.
The selectors may have been tempted to drop him for failing to perform in the role he was picked for, but given he became a bona-fide member of New Zealand's lower-order bailout squad in the mid 2000s, alongside Daniel Vettori and Jacob Oram, they often couldn't afford to leave him out. Innings like his brilliant unbeaten 45 in Queenstown, where he brought home a difficult chase against Sri Lanka from No. 8 with only the tail for company, prevented him from slipping back down into the domestic circuit completely.
Franklin is a polarising figure at home. To some, he epitomises everything that is wrong with New Zealand's selection policy; another jack-of-all-trades whose lack of consistency continues to scuttle New Zealand's efforts to become a major cricketing power. The detractors need only to look at Franklin's numbers to find fuel for their fire. His ODI bowling average is over 40, and his Test and Twenty20 figures don't inspire a lot of confidence either. With the bat, he averages in the low twenties in all three formats. A few years ago, Franklin was told by the national selectors to put his bowling on the backburner, and focus on his batting, which they believed had potential but was not getting the attention it deserved. He is now picked in the side primarily as a batsman - but his scores have not shot up dramatically enough to justify his selection on that discipline alone.
That he was left out of the New Zealand tour of West Indies, so he could focus on his Twenty20 cricket for Essex with the World Twenty20 approaching, then called up for the India Tests after 18 months away, sums up the muddled thinking.
But occasionally, Franklin comes off. And to cloud the issue even more, he has lately performed as a bowler. In the Super Eights opener, his 2 for 34 was the catalyst in Sri Lanka's slowdown. The hosts seemed destined to reel in New Zealand's score at a canter, but Franklin proved difficult to get away and counted the explosive Thisara Perera among his scalps when it was crucial New Zealand didn't allow Perera the room to explode. In the recent T20 against India in Chennai too, Franklin failed with the bat, but his 2 for 26 was instrumental in New Zealand's victory and their taking momentum into the World T20. But with good bowling form behind him, he was not required until the 12th over against England in a crucial match.
Franklin's batting, though, clicked against England, and he played the kind of innings that first marked him out as a batting talent. With New Zealand threatening to collapse at 67 for 4 in the 12th over, Franklin rebuilt alongside Ross Taylor, before letting rip with a spate of boundaries at the death. His 50 off 33 balls will justify his selection on batting grounds, but perhaps it should not gloss over a failure to consistently produce results since being asked to play as a batsman. In his last 30 innings across all formats, Franklin has made fifty only three times
Perhaps this inconsistency is not entirely Franklin's fault. Eleven years after making his debut, New Zealand's team management have failed to stick to a clear plan for him. If he is to play as a batsman, is he a finisher, as he was against England, or an opener, as he was against Bangladesh early in the tournament. At other times in his career, he has been given extended runs in the middle order and even higher up.
The Franklin detractors will be quietened for a while after a decent all-round showing at this tournament, but they are sure to make themselves known as soon as failures return. The New Zealand selectors have shown they will have Franklin do almost anything to bring him into the team. If they are going to be so persistent with picking him, perhaps they would do well to define what they want from him. If they play him as a batsman, or as a bowler or as an allrounder, rather than all three when it suits, perhaps consistency in their demands will help Franklin build dependability into his own game. As he has proved repeatedly, he has the talent to be successful; it just needs to be pushed in one very specific direction.