Saturday, January 7, 2012

Every colour but white

How do you prepare an underperforming international cricket team for an upcoming test series? If you're New Zealand Cricket, the answer seems to lie with T20 (with a handful of ODIs thrown in for good measure).

As opposed to donning the whites and throwing themselves headlong into first class cricket to prepare for a one-off test (one test does not a series make, but that's a topic for another day) against Zimbabwe and a three test series against the might of South Africa, Taylor, McCullum, Bracewell et al. will see nothing but a rainbow of cricketing uniforms, white balls, Dilshan scoops and change-ups. Those with intentions of breaking into the squad for the Zimbabwe test will have to do so via a weight of runs and wickets in the shorter forms and hope the selectors are willing to take the gamble they’ll make the step up. Whatever happened to preparing for test cricket, still the pinnacle of our game, on a diet of first class cricket where the only colours on offer are a sporting green wicket, a shiny red ball and the pink tinge of sunburn on the neck of a lone spectator?

The domestic cricket calendar suggests New Zealand Cricket don’t share my views – it seems numbers (read: money) have got out of balance with the common sense cricket management. So, let’s play the numbers game:
  • 77: the gap (in days) between rounds of New Zealand’s domestic four-day competition, the Plunket Shield, from early December to mid-February
  • 8: New Zealand’s current ICC test ranking (out of 9) – Zimbabwe hasn’t played enough matches to be ranked
  • 26: the number of years between New Zealand test wins on Australian soil (2nd test, December 9-12, 2011 – Hobart)
  • 5: the number of days of first class cricket the majority of New Zealand’s international players will play between the Hobart triumph and the first test against South Africa in March, 2012 (based on the one-off test against Zimbabwe going the distance)
  • 78: the actual number of days between the Australian and South African tests
  • 11: international matches New Zealand will play between the Zimbabwean and South African tests – for most of the New Zealand test team, these 11 T20Is and ODIs will be the only cricket they play
Numbers don’t always tell the full story, and they can be manipulated to support most arguments. Think otherwise; ask Stephen Fleming. Commentators and scribes made a big deal of him needing to get 54 runs in his final innings in test cricket to get his career average above 40 so he would be regarded as world-class – at 39.76 he would have still been one of the greats of the New Zealand, and world, game.

During the middle third of the New Zealand summer, half of the test side that subdued Australia in Hobart will play no first class cricket.  Those who play all three international formats will spend that period immersed in T20 and 50-over cricket, both on the domestic and international fronts; some will even pull up stumps and travel to Australia in between domestic rounds to play in Australia’s Big Bash League. Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Martin Guptill, Dean Brownlie and possibly Kane Williamson will have little or no chance to spend long periods at the crease before battling a South African side that continues to unearth fast bowling talents like the All Blacks breed openside flankers. If Jesse Ryder gets over a calf strain in time for the Zimbabwean test in late January, he will have had no time in the middle but will then likely play all the short form international matches prior to the first test against South Africa. That would leave the top six with no first class cricket leading into a series where they’re asked to blunt the bowling of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, ranked numbers one and five in the world respectively; a formidable attack even before mentioning Philander or de Lange. Of the bowlers, Doug Bracewell likely be the only one in the same boat – a huge ask for a young tyro still learning the intricacies of his art.

It’s not much easier for those on the fringes who are looking to break into the test side. Given they won’t have played first class cricket for the 54 days leading up to the one-off Zimbabwe test, it’s a big ask to pick them in a test match – fingers crossed Jesse’s yoga and pilates schedule leads to results. Sorry, if their province doesn’t make the HRV Cup (domestic T20) final, they may get a chance in a three-day match against the Zimbabweans that finishes two days before the test. At least the hopefuls will get the opportunity to play in two Plunket Shield matches before the South African test series though they will likely need phenomenal figures to break into the squad. The test specialists; Daniel Vettori, Chris Martin and Reece Young (plus possibly Trent Boult) will have the same opportunities and will need every day they can to hone their skills in anticipation of a fierce battle.

There are a number of issues that have led to the current flood of domestic T20 matches and the continued expansion of the HRV Cup, but will it help New Zealand Cricket be more competitive on the international scene, especially at test level? In short; no, and that creates a conundrum for those involved with the New Zealand game. Currently, we tend to get the requisite fillip of T20I and ODI matches but we get little more than a two test series against the bigger nations away from home. Whilst test and first class cricket is the game’s pinnacle, it doesn’t pay the bills, unless you’re England where it’s rare if the ‘full house’ signs aren’t up for at least the first four days of any test match. New Zealand is a very small market and the big sponsorship dollars are with rugby, so money has to be found elsewhere – at the moment, that’s T20. And let’s be honest, it brings punters to the game who wouldn’t otherwise give cricket a second glance, and that’s a good thing – many of the PlayStation generation don’t have the attention span to watch a one-dayer, let alone even one day of test cricket!

Both the provinces and New Zealand Cricket rely on money from gates and television revenues from T20 to help develop the game at grass roots level, promote it to an audience with a lot more entertainment choices than at any time before, and pay the salaries of those who play the game at the upper echelons. So, they play it through the holiday season to maximise exposure and revenues; they should, that’s what they’re tasked with doing. But, and it’s a but of Sir Mix-A-Lot proportions, should first class cricket be put on the back burner for eleven weeks? Surely domestic 50 over cricket can be fitted in where a gap exists, or be played the day after a Plunket Shield match, which would help cut expenditure as well? That would allow the HRV Cup to keep its current format and dates, and be played entirely between mid-December and mid-January when we are all enjoying time away from work, relaxing in the sun. Then, instead of playing poorly attended domestic 50 over matches in the Ford Trophy, players could get back into first class cricket earlier than they will in the 2011/12 season – a win-win for everyone! Well, for me at least, though I don’t imagine Justin Vaughan (or David White) will be inviting me to join them any time soon.

Spare a thought for the players too. They get publicly slated when they fail, even more so when they play a loose shot or make a decision akin to a brain fart, yet they are put in a position where they get nothing but limited overs cricket in preparation for a test series. They have to change what they do in a physical sense solely by mental application – how many sprinters run a marathon simply by changing their mental outlook?

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