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Couch Talk

'We blew it against Pakistan in 1999'

Former New Zealand fast bowler Dion Nash talks about his World Cup performances, the hopes of the current side, and the injuries that shortened his career

Subash Jayaraman: Would you say the group of players Brendon McCullum has at his disposal right now is the best to play for New Zealand?
Dion Nash: Yes. On paper, and on recent form, there is a strong argument. I think the reality is to wait and see how they do in the end. The team sent to the World Cup is in hot form, is well led by Brendon, and the bowling attack is good. In addition to that, they are the best balanced side. We seem to bat a long way down. The experience of the batting is good.
SJ: Would you still judge them by how the tournament ends?
DN: There is no doubt they are playing a nice style of cricket and catching the imagination of the public. If we don't make the final, we will have a sense of not having gotten quite as far as we should have. There is a bit of pressure there, which we have felt before. Regardless of where they end up - probably the only mainstay nation that hasn't won it and is well overdue - they have captured the imagination of the public. Ultimately they will be judged by where they end up in the tournament. But as far as cricket in this country is concerned, we have already won.
SJ: Regarding capturing of people's imagination, the last time a Kiwi team did that was in 1992, under Martin Crowe. Would you say that this team is overall better in terms of basic skills?
DN: I would restrain from comparing any eras. The top batsmen in the world then averaged 45. The top batsmen now average mid-50s and 60s. Are the batsmen any better, or have the conditions and situations changed? My gut feeling is that the generation, the players and batsmen are of the same level.
Right now, the best I can say about this team is that it is beautifully balanced. We appear to have a good bowling attack that works together. We have spin options and pace options. We have an aggressive top order, some stability throughout, and a good finishing group. In the last six to eight months this team has run into a good streak of form, with McCullum guiding that form with a magic wand. That is why we are excited. We have had teams having a hot streak - the teams that I played in the late 1999 had a great streak of form. But it was immediately after the World Cup. How long did those last? The timing is just so good right now. We and the country genuinely feel chuffed.
SJ: You played under Stephen Fleming, who is considered a masterful tactician and who did his best to bring out the best in his resources. How would you characterise Brendon McCullum's character?
DN: Stephen had some fantastic players. Whenever a team evolves, you point to someone or something as the ignition of that. I think Stephen did a great job, and if you look at the people he had, it was always about a group of leaders and performances. It is the same thing said here about Brendon McCullum. He has really got some guys who can play now, come together with form.
I think they are quite different. McCullum wears his heart on his sleeve. Some of his field placements have appeared to be quite brilliant. Stephen was a lot more measured. At times he probably played from out of a formula than instincts, and that worked as well. Probably the test will be when Brendon's captaincy is put under pressure. Fleming was good under pressure.
SJ: You had an opportunity to lead New Zealand when Fleming was down with injury in the 1998-99 home series v South Africa. People credit you with being an aggressive captain. What's your philosophy about what can be expected from a cricket team's captain?
DN: McCullum is very interactive with his bowlers. It feels like he is really progressive and trying to change the game. At the same time, he is thoughtful and is watching it. I very much like his style. Captaincy is not brain surgery. It is putting pressure on the opposition. The only way he can is by trying to stay ahead of the game. You can set any field you want but if the bowling and fielding unit are not up to the job, you are going to look foolish. McCullum is setting the field, but the bowlers are responding and the catchers are responding. At times a good captain makes the team look good and sometimes a great captain can be made to look bad by a bad team.
SJ: You were a part of two World Cups - in 1996, when New Zealand lost to Australia in the quarter-final in Chennai, and in 1999, in the semi-final to Pakistan.
DN: In the 1996 World Cup, I was very young. I wasn't very mature as a player, and I think that was the same for a number of players in the group. We were trying to win it for New Zealand, but I don't remember being particularly organised for that World Cup, or in particularly good form. It was more like, "Hey, let's see how far we can get." I remember the excitement. It was my first World Cup. It felt like I was playing well, but I don't remember us going in with a team of thoughts and collective consciousness of how we were going to win that World Cup.
The next one was the one where we were in a better frame of mind. We beat Australia at Cardiff. I got us off to a great start. The ball was swinging around a little. It wasn't high-scoring. We lost in the semi-final. I just remember looking back after the game, watching Pakistan get beaten in the final by Australia, and ruing a lost opportunity. I thought we were a much better side. We probably didn't have the belief in ourselves about how good we could be. After that World Cup we had a life-changing series in England when we beat England in England for the first time [since 1986]. In the period immediately after that we really came out as a cricket side. Six months after the World Cup we really got on with the performances and the belief.
SJ: You mentioned how disorganised you were as a team going into the 1996 World Cup. Was it an extension of that that you had Lee Germon as the captain - fresh face comes in and takes over the captaincy of the team? Was that a left-field choice for the selectors - to install him as the captain?
DN: Well, that was definitely a time for change. But I don't blame Lee Germon. I felt he was a very good captain, actually. Technically he was the equal of anyone I have played with and under. He was a fantastic reader of the game. There was some debate over Adam Parore not keeping anymore and him taking over the gloves. But ultimately I thought Lee did a great job. The fact is, he had a group of guys who were all young. We didn't have senior players together like you want before a big tournament. There was a little bit of that. Infighting might be a strong word, but we weren't getting along or gelling. And then you had some of us younger ones who had our ears pierced and thought we were superstars. It was a difficult thing for anyone to do, whoever was the captain of that side. The whole group needs to take responsibility for that time - the coach and management, the players and the captain, right up to New Zealand Cricket itself.
SJ: In that quarter-final against Australia, Lee scored 89 and Chris Harris played one of the defining innings of the tournament, with 130. You had Mark Waugh then come in and basically take your attack apart. Australia won by six wickets. In the middle of the match, when New Zealand had put on 286, you must have thought you were in with a very good chance?
DN: We thought we had won it. In reality, the turning point - and unfortunately I look at my part as well - was when Shane Warne got brought up the order and was sent to have a good old-fashioned tonk. I dropped a difficult catch. It was dewy and dark. I dropped a low catch running around the boundary. He went on to get 24. That got them going. Little moments like that. Had I taken that catch, maybe it was the end of the match. Or maybe we could have gone close. So many buts and maybes. Australia - the one thing I have learnt about them is, you haven't beaten them until you bowl the last wicket out or run the winning runs. They are just never going to give in. It's a wonderful quality, and we nearly saw that on Sunday [Auckland against New Zealand], didn't we? You can never count them out.
SJ: In the 1999 World Cup, you made it to the semi-finals and you ran into Saeed Anwar. With 241 in challenging conditions at Old Trafford, did you think that you had a chance again, because it is Pakistan and anything can happen?
DN: To be honest with you, we blew that match. I think we were 30 or 40 short. As it turned out 30 runs would have won it. Our bowling was a little bit unprepared. Whether it was the big occasion or whatever, it was the worst game of the tournament for all our bowlers collectively. We just didn't have the zing and sting we had in the games previous to it. Pakistan played well. They took it away from us. If you really look at what comes out of the belief of the group, you have to believe and visualise that you are going to hold that trophy up. We had settled, and perhaps we missed a little bit of belief to take us all the way.
You come to this side [2015], I believe the belief is there. I also look at the opposition sides around the world, and perhaps with the exemption of South Africa, who have celebrated senior players, all the other teams, if you line them up against the New Zealand side, are roughly the same average age, with same number of games played. They should go toe to toe with other sides. That means a lot. When I first started, we played against some of the Australian sides and the average age of our guys would be 25 and theirs would be 30.
SJ: You had a good start to your career, at Lord's - 11-for, career-best. But it ended in a draw. You took your best innings figures in Mohali - 6 for 27 - in 1999. That too ended in a draw. I am assuming there was a lot of disappointment that despite your efforts, two very good overseas wins did not happen.
DN: They were both memorable occasions, personally. Like you mentioned, neither of them ended in a win. The best tour I recall was our England tour in 1999, because we won that series. At Lord's I only got four wickets in the match but it felt like the best bowling in my career. Likewise, at The Oval there were four crucial wickets in the second innings that took us over the line. Winning in England makes it the special one.
Ultimately I had so many injuries. If I had taken it a bit more seriously at that time, I might have avoided them. I didn't know. Times were a bit different back then. All I wanted to do was play cricket. I was 23 when I took a contract at Middlesex. All of a sudden, here I play six months every day of the week.
In hindsight it was too much - blowing up my back. I really didn't recover from that. I would like to think of them as lessons. Now the bowlers are very patient with the rotation policy and teams are resting players. The level of fitness the guys are getting now is greater than in my days. You can look at them and say that hopefully they can learn some lessons from me and improve upon it.
SJ: A lot of listeners sent in this question: Sachin Tendulkar mentioned that you are one the bowlers he always struggled against. What was it that you think allowed you to get the better of him?
DN: I don't think anyone got the better of Sachin Tendulkar. To me, Tendulkar and Brian Lara were the clinical players of my era. As a fast bowler, you couldn't get excited about bowling when those two guys are facing. That was the pinnacle of my experiences - to bowl to guys like Sachin and Brian. Even more so when it was in their conditions, because you are never really in and then you bowl to a guy like that.
I think Sachin was probably the most gifted right-hander I have bowled to, and Lara the most gifted left-hander. The discipline I found against those guys - you had to be relentless and absolutely on point every delivery and you had to be hitting the top of the bat and swing it away, or doing something different. If they get even a mediocre delivery, the chances were that they were going over your head or through the covers or through point. Doing that gave them the chance to get off strike or release the pressure, and you had to start again. You need to have the attention to detail. You had to be bowling at a good clip and you had to be swinging it a bit.
SJ: Siva asks if it is true that there was a brief period after your injuries when you tried to make a comeback purely as a batsman?
DN: There was. What happened was that I saw a back surgeon in New Zealand. I was 23-24 years old when I had a back injury. He told me that my career was over. And so, being 24 and listening to a medical expert, you tend to believe them. I was devastated. For six months, I didn't know what to do.
And then what happened was a lady who my mother had heard on the radio doing pilates - it can give you core strength. I visited her and she started help me get healed. I still didn't think I would bowl again, but what I decided was that I will go and get some cricket, and I felt that at that age group I was as good as any other batters that I had played with, and that I could have a go at batting.
But what happened was that I only got half a season. I tried bowling in the nets and I found that I could bowl. I guess I have always wanted to be an allrounder. The moment I found that I could bowl again, I probably took that and ran with it. Having said that, I came back a much better batsman after my injury, because I had made the decision that I was going to try and bat.
SJ: Aashish asks how you dealt a career-ending injury when you had just turned 30.
DN: Look, I will be a liar if I said I didn't have the odd night when I wake up and think about it. You can't go through life without regrets. I am really proud of what I have achieved and how I have played once I realised that I had a finite career. I won't be the only bowler to have played with injury.
Fans, your team-mates and even your parents sometimes don't see the injury - the mental side of what you had to go through when you play with injury. In a way, it was a relief to retire early. It is also disappointing. Mentally my best years were still remaining - the next five or six. I think you can just take it for what it was and thank god and say that you got to bowl to Tendulkar, and play in that era against some really great cricketers - Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, the Waugh brothers, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath. It was a great era to be a part of. To have got in and got out and battled amongst those great guys was a real privilege.