The New Zealand cricket team has a proud heritage; indeed, it is almost a cricketing archetype: that of the scrapping, over-achieving Kiwi. The cricketers of New Zealand face a unique situation among the major nations: of playing a minority sport in a very small country, whose dominant game – rugby – attracts a die-hard fanaticism, unrivalled even among football lovers in England. In spite of the varied disadvantages it faces, cricket is the country’s firmly established second sport, and has provided the world with one of the greatest all-round cricketers: Sir Richard Hadlee, among other gifted and class players. New Zealand regularly ‘turn up’ at the major events and ‘punch above their weight’: semi-finalists in both of the two previous World Cups; less than a decade ago being ranked third in the ICC test rankings and holding the imperious Australian side of the early 2000s to an unprecedented test series 0-0 draw in their own back yard. New Zealand has a serious cricketing history, a proud and decorated one, as any follower of the sport will tell you.
The victory in Hobart at the backend of last year cannot be overstated. It is the year zero for New Zealand cricket in the post-Hadlee era. The most important aspect of this victory was the lack of cricketers heralded as being world class on the field for those five days, be they bowlers (Daniel Vettori), batsmen (Martin Crowe) or all-rounders (Chris Cairns; Stephen Fleming for his extraordinary captaincy skills): this match was won without any of their historic figures; everyone on the field had a future to carve out for themselves – with the exception of Chris Martin. The first test victory in Australia since Hadlee has to function as a catalyst for this new generation of Black Cap players to reach beyond themselves, climb the table and grab the success they have not seen since the 1980s.
2012 has not seen the team kick on. They battled to a 1-0 series defeat against South Africa, which didn’t quite reflect the superiority of the Proteas; still, it was a hard test series with positive moments for the Black Caps. The West Indies tour was a disaster in all formats. The tour had been one of the most eagerly anticipated of the year for purists (clashing with the anti-climax that was the South Africa vs England series), seeing the two most equally balanced teams on paper fight for precious ranking points that each team hoped would kick-start a belated scaling of the test ladder. India was always going to be a massive challenge, going there without their major test bowler and greatest spinner (Daniel Vettori: injured) made this all the harder. The first test was an annihilation as the Indian spinners overwhelmed the Kiwi batsmen, whose technique – consisting of a complete lack of foot movement; a void when it came to run scoring, struggling to get away the spinners at anything more than 2 and a bit an over, leading to pressure and on to capitulation – left quite some to be desired. The second test saw a dramatic improvement as Tim Southee and captain Ross Taylor displayed the obvious talent they possess in abundance, to grab a first innings lead and threaten a shock victory, before failing again in the second innings and not giving the Indians an intimidating score to chase. 5 defeats in 8 test matches to go alongside 7 in 11 ODIs against the major nations is a damning indictment of the failures of the Kiwi team this year. New Zealand arrived in Sri Lanka for the T20 world cup hoping to surprise and though they came up short (literally 2 runs away from a semi-final slot as they went down twice in super innings shoot outs) they will nonetheless be devastated at not progressing further.
The failure of 2012 however must serve as a stark reminder to the post-Hobart group that work must be done. The ‘mutual agreement’ that has seen John Wright – New Zealand legend and one of the finest international head coaches around – leave the set-up is nothing short of a tragedy. The New Zealand cricket board may have a lot of faith in John Buchannan replicating his success whilst with their antipodean neighbours, but siding with him over such a vital figure in Kiwi cricket, who had begun to make exciting things happen with the country’s team, is unforgivable and could potentially harm the progress of this side.
Continuity in selection has been key over the last year and it must continue as such. The considerable talents of Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill and Doug Bracewell boasts very well for the future of this team. All three of them under 26, they should form the core of a formidable side under Ross Taylor: an elegant batsman (averaging over 40 to boot, the only established man in the top 6 to currently do so) who has so far taken well to captaincy, as seems natural of New Zealand’ cricketers. Brendon McCullum has experienced a renaissance in his batting form since his hanging up of the gloves; Chris Martin is enjoying his twilight as leader of the attack, though how long he will continue as he approaches the ripe old age of 38 remains a doubt; Tim Southee showed promise in India and recently in Sri Lanka too, at 23 he has so much time to fulfil his potential also. Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Mark Gillespie have all performed well in the last 12 months so the Kiwis possess a thoroughly good seam attack that has proven itself as very efficient in helpful conditions. The lack of pace in this department (they all average low to mid 80mph) has been a contributing factor to this weakness but as previously stated: these bowlers are young and have time to develop their skills and bolster their armoury. Dean Brownlie impressed me with his temperament in Australia and though he has some technical hindrances (most prominently weakness against spin and the swinging ball due to his inclination toward sitting on the back foot) I believe he has the mental strength to forge himself into a gritty number 6 for the team, contributing in a similar manner as Paul Collingwood did for England in the recent past. The issue of Jesse Ryder makes this whole Pietersen debacle seem tame. Jesse appears to be a very vulnerable young man and it would be awful to lose such a promising individual from the international game. On the fringes there are several promising cricketers that will make squads and potentially impact on games. James Franklin is a very useful cricketer and has had a great impact in the shorter game recently, which saw him return to the test side in India. Rob Nicol has similarly performed well in the ODIs and T20s; he also seems to have a very positive disposition which could see him re-called for more tests in the future. With Van Wyck slotting very nicely into the team as keeper and the superior batting of BJ Watling enabling him to fulfil the dual roles of replacement keeper and extra batter, the New Zealand cricket team has a versatile squad which should allow them to do better than they are.
The form and state of Daniel Vettori’s body is a major concern. Picking up just five wickets in his five tests this year at an average of 87 – though on largely unhelpful pitches – is a poor return for a man the side have leaned on for 15 years. Though miserly as ever with the ball in hand, if the team are to realise their potential they need a firing Vettori to offer able support to the strong battery of young seamers coming through the ranks. He has stated his desire to play on till the 2015 world cup at least; though the mind is willing there is growing disquiet over the state of his body. Groin problems ruled him out of the Black Caps’ three previous test matches and having aggravated an Achilles problem in the recent T20 world cup, he is a major doubt for the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka. Behind the legend stands only Jeetan Patel, who admittedly had a fine season for Warwickshire in the county championship and stood tall in India. It is vital Vettori stays fit long enough for this side to learn to cope without one of the finest orthodox left arm spinners the game has seen. The lack of quality in reserve is a worry, but an expected one. Pitches in the country are hardly spin friendly and never have been: the second highest Kiwi wicket taking spin bowler is John Bracewell with 102: 257 scalps behind Vettori.
My message is this: New Zealand must recapture the spirit they are famed for. They must grind through the troughs and hit home when they have the advantage. They have arguably their finest squad for a generation; they have depth, a luxury Fleming’s fine team at the turn of the century did not possess. A realistic target is to aim to be a top five test & ODI team by 2015. To reach the semi-finals of the world cup (which they will co-host); make the southernmost cricketing nation a fearful place to tour again and to improve their performances away from home. They have the players to do it. Now is the time to live up to their fine heritage and for this post-Hobart team to invade the upper echelons of the ICC rankings once more.
My New Zealand XI:
Ross Taylor (Captain)
Kruger Van Wyck (Keeper)
Neil Wagner (12th man)