Friday, March 30, 2012

XI lessons from a New Zealand summer

Part 1: Opening up at the top of the order

New Zealand’s domestic summer is over – next stop is the Windies in the Caribbean. Before we move on to reggae, rum and Caribbean cool it’s apt we look back at the home summer.

From a T20I against Zimbabwe in Harare on Oct 15, 2011 until the end of the third South African test at Wellington’s Basin Reserve on 27 March, 2012  New Zealand have played 23 matches across all international formats – the much maligned Brendon McCullum is the only player to don the black cap in every match.

The undoubted highlight was New Zealand’s victory against Australia at Hobart in late 2011 – Doug Bracewell’s heroics helped his side to their first test victory on Australian soil in 26 years and confirmed the promise he’d shown in Zimbabwe. For mind, Kane Williamson’s fighting century in the final test of the summer ran it close.

Across all formats New Zealand won more than half their outings, though with home and away fixtures against a weak Zimbabwean side struggling to readjust to the rigours of the international game, the figures are a little skewed. A 92% winning percentage from 12 matches against cricket’s whipping boys was balanced by a one in nine record against the might of a South African side with endless riches at their disposal.

The 2011/12 season has been a roller-coaster, though the elation of the highs never quite matched the depression of the lows. Lessons were plentiful but in the spirit of cricket (don’t get me started) I’ve summarised the season in eleven points – they’re not necessarily the stuff of statistical genius but cricket is still about more than just the numbers.

In the first of a three-part feature I look at the issues at the forefront of our summer game.

1. Test openers are specialists: The ability to win test matches, to even compete, is built around the surety and runs that come from a dependable opening pair. They have no need to set the world alight with stroke play; their role is to understand where their off stump is and blunt the resolve of a trio (or more) of quicks.

Early form against a Zimbabwe side who would struggle at domestic level, even in this country, papered over a number of the cracks at the top of the order. Two tests against Australia and the recent series against South Africa have shown New Zealand’s flaws, technically and mentally, against genuine pace and a nagging line. I add the last comment in reference to Vernon Philander – his bowling at a “fourth stump” has been likened to Glenn McGrath and has illustrated the inability of the New Zealand openers (and those that have followed) to show the necessary patience and cricketing awareness to protect the rest of their order.

Limited overs form, and poise on the flat decks on which it’s played, does not lead to test match success. Whilst the short form requires openers to attack around the ground, test match innings’ are best built around a clear understanding of technical limitations and playing the percentages. The efforts of Cook, Strauss, Hayden, Langer, Smith et al. show the worth of getting it right at the top. New Zealand will struggle to post defendable, or competitive, test totals against good bowling line-ups until we have a solid opening platform.

Martin Guptill is a work in progress, as was Brendon McCullum until he was moved to three. However, given their successes, or lack thereof, will either ever provide a viable long term option if New Zealand cricket is to progress? Given time, in endless supply, they may fashion a passable record but little better. However, the decision to throw Rob Nicol to the South African pace men as a sacrificial lamb was only ever going to provide a feast for one side – the holes in his technique would be found out in the middle order. Nicol’s exit saw the entry of another middle order player for the final test. Daniel Flynn has tightened his technique since his last stint at international level and showed the required fortitude in his first knock. If he is to be a long term option he needs to be given the job for the winter tours and then allowed the option to open at domestic level in 2012/13 – he can switch with Joey Yovich for the Knights. 

Some of New Zealand’s biggest totals in recent memory were built around the tempered batting of an ex-left arm spinner who opened the batting at a pace akin to the proverbial tortoise. Mark Richardson’s lengthy knocks at the top of the order enabled New Zealand to usurp many cricketing hares – he allowed the shot makers the freedom to attack. New Zealand’s middle order batting largely only saw a new ball when it was taken a second time when both the pitch and the quicks were blunted.

In the 2011/12 season New Zealand fielded six middle order batsmen moulded into a full, not complete, batting line-up. Will the upcoming tour to the West Indies see Wright go out on a limb and include young Otago opener Hamish Rutherford in his squad? Three centuries (including a double) at the back end of the Plunket Shield have shown he has the ability, albeit he couldn’t command a regular place in the Otago side until after the Christmas break. Or, will the scarred memories of his father’s dismantling as a nineteen year old debutant play heavily on the minds of both player and coach – no-one would wish that harsh examination on any man?

How do you develop players with the technique and mental aptitude to be successful in cricket’s toughest job? One would think that having a national coach with test match experience opening up would be a step in the right direction.

2. ‘Potential’ tags have a use-by date: Kane Williamson has the potential, nay the genuine ability, to be mentioned amongst a small group of New Zealand’s greats when his deeds are discussed in years to come. A test average a touch over 35 hides his cricketing awareness at the crease, but after a dozen tests against five test nations it is time to take his game to the next level.

At just 21 years of age, Williamson has a maturity that would embarrass many of his Black Cap peers but with 21 test innings under his belt it’s time to lose the potential tag – ask Tim Southee how it becomes a noose over time. If he is able to clear his head and get through difficult patches he has the brightest of futures. As he closes in on 50 first class matches an average of 40 needs to start to move further north – too many starts have ended in a well compiled 30 or 40.

Like many young cricketers an extended stint in the County Championship would allow him the time to develop his game with competitive day-in day-out cricket. Another short stint at Gloucestershire will help his cricketing education - New Zealand’s winter tours stand in the way of a full season.

Whilst Williamson’s averages in limited overs internationals would suggest otherwise, his greatest benefit to New Zealand will be borne out in the test arena. As he begins to more clearly understand his game and makes the necessary technical changes, is his best opportunity to concentrate on the longer version of the game at the expense of T20I? Confusing the instincts of a young man will simply delay his ascension in the test ranks.

As the South African series progressed so did Williamson’s influence on New Zealand’s test line-up. In five innings he led his more experienced contemporaries in every category except strike rate –not an influential measure of test success. Williamson hit both New Zealand’s top scores and spent close to 30 more overs at the crease than his nearest peer – who ever said test cricket was a complicated game? An average in excess of 55 against the most deadly pace attack in world cricket shows his game is progressing – the key will be to continue that progress. His unbeaten century on the final day of the series at the Basin against a rampant Morne Morkel showed signs he had started to take the bend – the series in the Windies will be a test to see if he can negotiate the rest of the corner. The New Zealand public can hold its breath for only so long.

As I reflect on the current decade in years to come, I could think of little sweeter than to reminisce with my young son about the innings of one of New Zealand’s finest test captains and relive a joy not felt since Martin Crowe dominated the world’s best attacks (@lemayol will spend the coming years waxing lyrical – she’s already swooning) - test cricket greatness awaits Williamson.

3. 1st class cricket is a 2nd class citizen: Ask a cricketing tragic what their favourite form of our great game is and they won’t hesitate for even a delivery – test, and first class, cricket wins out every time. It’s no different in New Zealand but in recent seasons first class cricket has taken a backward step – we’ve seen every colour but white.

Laying the blame at the feet of New Zealand Cricket (NZC) is too simplistic – they operate in an environment where cricket is little more than a minority sport in a country dominated by the World Champion All Blacks and all that rugby entails. Sponsorship dollars and spectator numbers are equally hard to come by when there is little more than a two month rugby-free window at the height of summer – it’s understandable the Plunket Shield takes a hiatus as we revel in the January sun with a beer and a barbie. The T20 HRV Cup dominates the summer break, but….

New Zealand’s domestic schedule is in a state of flux – the success of the HRV Cup is dependent on the Black Caps return which means it takes precedence when NZC schedules the domestic season. The problem with that is the gap in Plunket Shield rounds – there was no four-day cricket for 77 days from early December to mid-February. Consequently, the heroes of New Zealand’s historic second test victory against Australia played nothing but limited overs cricket (and a lopsided Zimbabwe test) for 78 days before the first test against the might of South Africa. Vettori and the brothers McCullum even travelled to Australia in between domestic rounds to play in Australia’s Big Bash League – the cry for a deserved break will continue to fall on the deaf ears of Black Caps supporters.

How can you ask a top order with little or no first-class cricket to compete at their best against a South African side that turns out quality quicks like the All Blacks produce openside flankers? The question is largely rhetoric but their efforts have borne out the answer, though there are more worries than simply a lack of time at the crease in first-class cricket.

The quandary for NZC is finding the balance between refilling their coffers on the back of the HRV Cup and allowing players to prepare for the rigours of test cricket – next season it would be great to see the T20 schedule condensed to provide a bet each way. 

4. Domestic T20 holds the balance of power: There’s nothing profound in that, it’s a sign of the times. In the midst of the instant gratification generation, the hit and giggle of T20 was always going to take hold – for how long is yet to be seen.

Whilst I’d choose the first-class game at every turn, T20 still holds appeal to all but the most closed-minded of cricketing anoraks. As discussed above, cricket in New Zealand is largely held over a barrel – the sponsorship pool is reduced and the viewing choices for casual spectators continue to grow.

Both the provinces and New Zealand Cricket rely on money from gates and television revenues from the HRV Cup domestic T20 competition 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.

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. 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 a full day of first-class cricket!

To those who deplore the T20 game my advice is this; embrace it, it’s here to stay and by neglecting it you are missing out on seeing some of our best young players. This year’s edition of the HRV Cup has led to international call-ups for the likes of de Grandhomme, Hira, Ellis and Bates, who have all been rewarded for continued success in three hour slots. There’s always a bright side to every decision - the more regularly we promote T20 specialists the more likely it is others will be asked to concentrate on their test game.

The greatest illustration of T20’s appeal was at this year’s HRV Cup final – like other impressionable young boys and girls my son roamed the boundary fielding stray balls from games of pick-up cricket, raced onto the ground at the innings break, went home with a new cricket hat and a mini bat and mentioned little else for days. When was the last time such scenes were witnessed at a domestic first-class match?


Next up:

Disagree with my assessment? Think NZC have got the balance right? Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi. If you enjoyed it, sign up for email alerts for future pieces from A Cricketing Buddha.

6 comments:

  1. Excellent stuff - very much looking forward to parts 2 & 3.

    It's so different over here - because the t20s are mostly televised, you're very rarely allowed onto the outfield. My little one loves the domestic first-class games because he gets two stints of cricket on the Oval turf. They're also, despite claims of t20 being a more accessible way into cricket-watching for young people, pushing to start the games later.

    I was gobsmacked to see so many empty seats during your Tests, so I can't imagine what the first-class audiences are like. I thought we had a "3 men and a dog" problem during the week. But I know where you're coming from - t20s are where the sponsorship etc lies. And a lot of people watch what they're told to watch.

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  2. Kind words - thank you. I'll post the other parts in the next couple of days; one needs editing, the other some imagination...

    You can run onto the ground during the break at almost all domestic matches here. NZC is starting to use more boutique grounds so the kids aren't stuck in a lifeless jungle. No-one turns up to first-class cricket here bar a couple of retirees in a deck chair with their transistor and a newspaper - more to get away from her indoors than watch the cricket I suspect.

    Domestic T20 is largely all played at 2pm here in the afternoon sun so kids are absolutely everywhere. My lad is only just 2 but he loved it - sitting in an old roller pretending to drive definitely helped, as did the bouncy castle.

    Re people at the tests, and the numbers - I cover that off a bit more in part 3.

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    1. Well, in the unlikely event that I ever make it out to NZ, and it's in the cricket season, I'll camp out at a first class game just for the shocker of a young(ish) woman being out there.

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  3. Firstly, I think Guptill has been struggling for far too long on the fourth stump corridor. He has to find a way to negotiate that out swinger just around off stump. With Wright around, I even expected he'd be dropped for the third test against SA. With what I've followed in the last few years, I think there aren't any better domestic candidates to push for his slot. Currently, I'd still go with McCullum and Guptill. (One Kiwi on twitter suggested Jeet Raval) Look forward to Rutherford's batting.

    I am another massive fan of Kane Williamson. I think one or two other middle order batters have to spend a lot of time with him in the middle, for him to keep scoring big. Taylor's been getting out after starts. Most of the others didn't even manage starts. And we now have Vettori at 6. I reckon Williamson will start getting the hundreds only with more support and stability in the middle order. He can't easily manage watching too many wickets fall at the other end.

    After attending quite a few games in this Indian domestic season, I can tell you it's exactly the way you've described the attendances here. I moved to Dunedin recently and I'll certainly be attending the first class games next summer.

    I enjoyed every word of this piece. Thank you!

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    1. First, I'm glad you like it and thanks for the comment - it's one of the main reasons I started penning these pieces.

      I agree with Guptill, and I thought Wright may have sorted some of those issues, but alas - no! Baz and Guptill are the two choices at the moment, though it'll be interesting to see what they do with Flynn. The Rutherford comment was a little tongue in cheek, but it'll be interesting to see how he goes it he plays a full domestic season in 2012/13 - his old man was crucified when he was in the Windies and he was never the same - it destroyed the cricketing soul of a very promising 19 year old.

      With regards Taylor, I covered off my thoughts on him and Baz in a section on being consistently inconsistent. Starts for those two are not enough - they need to start to lead buy example, not just by the fact that they have the C after their name. If they can start to make scores and Brownlie continues to adjust to test cricket then KSW will prosper.

      Family has curtailed my stints at first class cricket but took my 2 y.o. to the T20 final this year and I'll try and get him to a few more next year - there are plenty of distractions for him and dad can have a look at some of the future international cricketers showing their talent.

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    2. Oh, and Jeet Raval - that might be best left in the Twitterverse...

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