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Feature

New Zealand's Test superstars have started to fade

Failure to seize on big moments in England suggests Kane Williamson and company have lost their spark

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
27-Jun-2022
Kane Williamson kicks the ball away, 3rd Test, England vs New Zealand, Headingley, June 23, 2022

Kane Williamson and New Zealand were beaten 3-0 by England  •  Getty Images

At Lord's, New Zealand had England 69 for 4 in pursuit of 277; in Nottingham, they made 553 after being asked to bat first; in Leeds, they had England 55 for 6, still 274 behind their first-innings total. On each occasion, the game has drifted away from them, ending in England knocking off 270+ targets with at least five wickets in hand.
It has been a gruelling tour, one marred by a Covid-19 outbreak and injuries to key players in Kyle Jamieson and Colin de Grandhomme, which has taken their run without a series win beyond a year. Since last year's World Test Championship final, they have won two of their last nine Tests and slipped to fourth in the ICC's rankings.
The biggest question for that champion team was how to replace the retiring Ross Taylor and BJ Watling, but their effective replacements - Daryl Mitchell and Tom Blundell respectively - have been New Zealand's best two players in this series, putting on four hundred partnerships and thriving against the old ball.
NZC have spent years making succession plans, investing heavily in the A-team programme and looking to widen the pool of players available to them. But there has been an ingrained conservatism in their selection: Rachin Ravindra, the talented 22-year-old batter who bowls solid left-arm spin, scored 217 for Durham two weeks ago but New Zealand handed a debut to the 31-year-old Michael Bracewell instead, who averaged 24 with the bat and went at 5.97 an over with the ball.
And there has been an unmistakable sense of drift among the more established players. The inaugural WTC gave New Zealand's fixture list context, something to aim towards and aspire to be, but on this tour they have seemed directionless, losing all of the series' key moments. None of the top five in the Headingley Test averaged more than 25.16 on the tour while Trent Boult was the only bowler to come out of the series with his reputation enhanced.
For Kane Williamson, their captain, it has been another difficult tour: he made his Test comeback after missing the entire home summer with an elbow injury but missed the second Test with Covid-19 and picked a bizarre team in the third, with Bracewell, a bits-and-pieces allrounder, playing as the frontline spinner ahead of Ajaz Patel on a pitch where Jack Leach bowled more than 70 overs and took 10 wickets.
Perhaps it was Neil Wagner who personified the tour. New Zealand supporters were crying out for his inclusion in the first two Tests but he was noticeably down on pace in Leeds and on the final morning, he was the bowler of last resort, brought on when England needed 10 to win with seven wickets in hand. He finished with match analysis of 20-3-108-2; at 36, it may be time to move on.
"Professional sport is very competitive: you win and you lose," Williamson said. "For us, it is frustrating that we haven't quite had some of the results go our way but… we [need to] still understand that we're not that far away. If we look at each match closely, there were moments - and large moments - throughout it where we were right in the match or even ahead of the game.
"To win those moments and take the game further into stronger winning positions is something we want to be doing and something we were doing really well a year ago. The margins are small so it's [about] not overreacting, making sure that we're aware of those things and keep looking to move forward as a side."
But that move forward will not be immediate. "There's a long gap before the next one [Test series] and it will be quite different conditions as well," Williamson said. They are due to tour Pakistan at the end of the year while their fixture list for the 2022-23 home summer is due to be announced on Tuesday. ESPNcricinfo understands that they will play England in February, then Sri Lanka straight after.
The nature of their schedule, with sporadic short series across widely different conditions, means it is hard to assess performance: Will Young has played every Test in the last 12 months but has batted only 16 times across three different countries and against four different opponents.
Williamson's own future as captain is unclear. He insisted that he intends to carry on in the role: "I certainly love this group and love being a leader within the environment," he said. "It's been an interesting period of time, getting back to fitness and things, but it's great to be out here, playing along these guys and against a strong England team. Certainly the appetite is still there."
But his elbow has been a constant, nagging issue over the last 18 months and with a young family and six years of service in the bank, this feels like the perfect time to hand over to Tom Latham and focus on his batting. His legacy as a great New Zealand captain is already secure: continuing in the role might feel like the safe option but if anything, it is the riskier one.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98