Monday, April 2, 2012

XI lessons from a New Zealand summer (3)

Part 3: Finishing the innings with the bunnies

The final instalment of my three-part feature looks at the batting bunnies at the bottom of the order and New Zealand’s continued lack of consistency. The 12th man even makes an appearance in the outfield.

9. Consistently inconsistent (read: frustrating): I support the Warriors, Arsenal and the Windies so inconsistency and frustration seem to greet me at every turn – the Black Caps confirm I have a penchant for punishment.

New Zealand’s only consistency is their inconsistency. Nothing bares the frustration out more than the two test series (does two make a series? Let’s leave that for another day…) against Australia – a flogging followed by history making!

Let’s take a step back first - New Zealand was saved the blushes of a test loss to Zimbabwe (without a test ranking) by a debutant. The heroics of young Central Districts quick Doug Bracewell on the final day of the one-off test stopped Zimbabwe in their tracks with the finish line in sight. New Zealand looked like they wouldn’t defend 366 in the fourth innings when Taylor and Taibu threatened to derail the Black Caps before a young man in his first test showed his contemporaries the way forward. They then dominated the same side, albeit in very different conditions, in Napier by an innings and 301 runs within 3 days. Home advantage is not worth that much!

Cricket’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to the fore again in Australia. After suffering a nine wicket loss (New Zealand were spared 10 thanks to a hopelessly out of form Phil Hughes) in the first test, the Black Caps created history, and hope, with their first test victory on Australian shores in 26 years in the next test in Hobart. Neither bowlers nor batsmen, excepting Brownlie and Vettori, showed any resolve to begin the “tour” – Brad Haddin even snuck 80 which fairly sums up the bowling effort. That the same players could then secure a seven run victory is what helps Kiwi fans keep a modicum of faith. The batting was no better but the bowlers fully utilised the Hobart surface. There is a tendency to mention the sporting green top in Tasmania though New Zealand battled the worst of the surface first-up and still came out on top. 

It’s best I pass over the South African T20I series. New Zealand had done everything but get across the line in the final match and it’s been analysed ad nauseum – everyone knows my thoughts, there’s no need to go there again.

After a great start to the test series against South Africa in Dunedin, the batsmen couldn’t reinforce the advantage Chris Martin had worked so hard to gain. Though rain washed out a fifth day when the top order finally showed some starch, it also cost South Africa a likely victory. The second test was little more than one way traffic, but the third saw some fight on the final day at the Basin. Kane Williamson’s second test century salvaged a draw from defeat, leaving fans with a glimmer of hope for the future when we expected none – we’re suckers for punishment.

From an individual perspective, Taylor and McCullum made improvements in application but still finished like a pair starting out not the mainstays of New Zealand’s batting line-up. Discounting both the Australian (no-one stood out) and Zimbabwean series’, there was the same promise but no polish against the South Africans.

In four of his six innings Brendon McCullum scored between 31 and 61 – in all he had built a platform and shown fine temperament but then allowed the over-exuberance back into his game that has plagued his career, instead of simply hitting the kill switch. I say simply, but I imagine it is anything but.

Two of Ross Taylor’s three dismissals were on 44 whilst he also fell in the teens – again, the hard work was done. Though he was not out just short of fifty in Dunedin when the rain intervened, New Zealand needs its premier batsmen, and captain, to lead by example and go on.

New Zealand fans have had enough of the contrite statements after another brain explosion – it’s admirable but we’d rather there was no need. If both stalwarts can convert their starts New Zealand will make large strides forward.

The Black Caps biggest enigma seems to be Martin Guptill. Even seasoned pros have fallen into the trap of assuming the grace and poise he shows in limited overs internationals will translate to the test arena and in time it may do. For now the promise continues to be just that – it has a way to go before it’s realised.

10. Let Doug Bracewell develop at test level: In a short test career Doug Bracewell has shown he has the ability to win matches on his own – in seven tests he’s already done it twice. However, like Kane Williamson with the willow, should the young tyro be asked to play in all three international formats whilst he learns his game at the highest level?

New Zealand Cricket would do well to let him develop in the long form without the rigours of the shorter versions – there are others to fill that void. By the end of the South African series Bracewell looked jaded. He played in eighteen of twenty-three international matches – a heavy workload for a young quick in his first season, given he also missed two South African ODIs through injury and suspension. The harsh lessons learned by the Australians with injuries to Cummins and Pattinson need to be heeded here too – New Zealand’s talent pool doesn’t allow us the luxury of choice.

The likes of Mills, Bates, Ellis and Southee are capable of shouldering the limited overs workload leaving Bracewell to concentrate on test cricket. The lack of rhythm, unnecessary variety and short spells puts a huge strain on the body, and is a drain, both mentally and physically, for a young man still learning his craft.

Disagree? Consider this: without Bracewell’s efforts in Zimbabwe and Australia, New Zealand’s only test victory would have come against Zimbabwe in Napier. The Black Caps would likely have suffered a loss to a side without a test ranking and been whitewashed by the Australians again. Still developing at domestic first-class level, Bracewell topped New Zealand’s 2011/12 test bowling figures with 30 wickets at under 23 – who else would have produced the same return?

11. Vintners all want a Chris Martin vintage: Like a Hawkes bay red, Chris Martin gets better with age. At 37 years old most men are finding ways to avoid competition not flourishing in its challenges – for Chris Martin the 2011/12 international season has seen the steady approach Black Caps fans, and his team mates, have grown to depend on.

What is remarkable is that the Tommy, the unfashionable quick, became New Zealand’s fourth test cricketer to 200 wickets, following in the footsteps of Kiwi icons Hadlee, Vettori and Cairns - it’s unlikely that Kyle Jarvis’ wicket will ever be so greatly celebrated again. How many cricket fans can honestly say they thought Martin would get to 200 scalps when he dismissed Gary Kirsten on debut in 2000? Martin now sits in third place on New Zealand’s all-time highest wicket takers, pushing Chris Cairns and Danny Morrison to numbers four and five respectively. In the world game his current haul of 226 sits him alongside the esteemed English company of Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff – his record flatters to deceive. Many comment that he has only achieved such numbers because of the length of his career – isn’t that you want from an international bowler? Martin has been the exception to New Zealand’s injury crisis in the past decade.

In seven tests in 2011/12 Martin has taken 27 wickets at less than 26 - pedestrian when compared to South Africa’s Vernon Philander’s haul in the same period but only three below New Zealand’s attacking weapon, Doug Bracewell. As in past seasons he seldom set the world alight though his post-tea spell against South African in Dunedin where he dismissed Smith, Kallis and de Villiers inside two overs was bettered only by Bracewell’s match winning spells against Zimbabwe and Australia, and showed his worth in the black cap. Outside that short spell he spent the season toiling away, largely staying out of the headlines but doing his job – some of his more storied teammates would do well to follow his lead. Ask Phil Hughes about his consistency and growing ability to work batsmen out – he had him caught in the cordon by Guptill in all four innings of the Australian series.

In 12 years of international cricket Martin has amassed 68 tests – only seven cricketers have played more test cricket for New Zealand. For a cricketer who looked more like a stereotypical bookworm than an international athlete, Martin’s longevity defies belief. In a way his lack of batting ability and club level fielding has helped – he has played very little limited overs cricket so his body has been honed for the longer version.

Constant injuries amongst his test peers have thrust Martin into the role of New Zealand’s main attacking weapon – how much better would his career figures have been if he could have played the role Chatfield did to New Zealand’s incomparable cricketing knight? For many years he has been the only constant amongst the New Zealand pace bowling attack – the problem has been that instead of being the second choice, a role he played dutifully and effectively when Bond was fit, he has been required to be the main strike weapon – that’s not his forte. The addition of Bracewell this year has given him a break from shouldering that burden. To be referred to as a modern Ewen Chatfield should be seen as the highest of compliments.

A piece on Chris Martin wouldn’t be complete without comment on his batting prowess. Crowds rise every time he strides to the crease and he gets rapturous applause for every tentative poke with the willow – 2011/12 has been no different. That Cricinfo even list his batting style is an unfortunate oxymoron.

12th man. Boutique is beautiful: Whangarei’s Cobham Oval became New Zealand’s newest international ground when it hosted Zimbabwe for an ODI in early February. It continued a move by New Zealand Cricket to utilise bespoke cricket grounds for ODI and test cricket and added to the growing appeal of New Zealand’s boutique grounds. Full to overflowing with Northerners starved of meaningful international cricket (Auckland, our largest city, has no international venue), the Oval looked a picture – surely small grounds packed with spectators is better than a few more in a deserted coliseum?

The continued elevation of University Oval in Dunedin alongside the Basin Reserve and Seddon Park as New Zealand’s premier test grounds will ensure Kiwis watch cricket in picturesque grounds with atmosphere as opposed to soulless concrete edifices. With England touring in 2013 it’s time for everyone to petition NZC to send one of the ODIs to the Queenstown Events Centre, possibly the most beautiful cricket backdrop in the world and a great advertisement for our corner of paradise.

Series recap:

Cricket’s not about just about statistics, and everyone has seen something different – my writing is simply one man’s view. If yours are different, I’d love to hear them – it’s one of the reasons I write. Next stop is the Windies in the Caribbean – my national side against the islands that set me on the cricketing path. I can’t wait!

Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi. If you enjoyed it, sign up for email alerts for future pieces from A Cricketing Buddha.

2 comments:

  1. Love the boutique grounds that test cricket is played at in NZ, must make us an incredibly attractive proposition for touring teams. The weather might not always be good but at least you don't have to play in either an SCG style pressure cauldron or a Galle style heatwave.
    Great for the fans too, there is nothing better than sitting down on the bank for an afternoon of test cricket at the Basin, I can never be bothered going to the big stadium anymore because there is consistently no atmosphere. Every test in Wellington at the Basin though and I'll drop everything to head down.

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    1. Like you, I love the grounds but living in Auckland I'd like a game here at some time. I imagine there may be one for England simply due to the huge number of Barmy Army fans.

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