For all the questions raised about cricket in the home of the brave I was pleasantly surprised by the two-match T20 series in Florida to kick off New Zealand’s West Indies tour. It may not have the history of the Kensington Oval or the dancing masses of Sabina Park but Florida’s Broward County ground didn’t look out of place as an international venue – if only the cricket had matched the surroundings.
The United States’ only ICC sanctioned international ground has undergone a cricketing transformation from the tentative baby steps it took when New Zealand first toured in 2010. Whilst it lacked the pace and bounce of the best limited overs wickets so do many in both New Zealand and the Caribbean. It had enough of both, and minimal sideways movement, to allow players to swing through the line with confidence – Smith, Bravo and Pollard went at it from ball one. The indifferent efforts of a sub-par New Zealand line-up shouldn’t be seen as a reflection on the wicket, more of the lack of preparation and absence of mental toughness that international cricket requires.
At times the standard of the tourists’ cricket struggled to match the surroundings - one side came ready to play; the other did not. Whilst New Zealand were suffering from cricket’s equivalent of ring rust, the Windies came out swinging from the off, putting on a show for a partisan Windies crowd. Though there were issues with getting supporters into the ground for the first match, officials estimate the crowds over the two matches approached 25,000 – three times the meagre numbers in 2010. Given the number of West Indian expats in Florida a return trip would have legs but it would be great to see a United States side play in a curtain raiser - what better way to help promote the game at home?
By the end of the Windies innings in the first T20 New Zealand had suffered three injuries, all of varying degrees, reducing their squad to 12 fit players for Sunday's match - coach John Wright, on his final tour before vacating the role, was a genuine chance to make his T20 debut at a sprightly 57, some 20 years after his international retirement. Lively spinner Ronnie Hira has returned home after trying to catch a return Gayle thunderbolt. His tour ended early into his third over, his international development temporarily halted after a successful debut in 2011/12.
Whilst Jacob Oram was able to bat, though not run, a knee injury picked up in the field has left him a day to day proposition - given his advancing years his immediate involvement in the Caribbean is uncertain, regardless of the positive murmurings coming out of the tourists' camp. Whilst he has offered economy with the ball and a steadying senior influence, Oram continues to struggle to play out a series. He has been a strong servant of his country but the game is about more than statistics - it’s fair to question how unsettling it is have him constantly on the sidelines. If he can make it through to the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka, what better time to bow out of international cricket - Oram deserves to go out on his own terms but it's time for a younger, healthier man to fill his sizeable shoes.
The most significant loss to a side still trying to adjust to the retirement of Daniel Vettori, and the resting of Brendon McCullum for the limited overs portion of the tour, is that of new skipper, Ross Taylor. As if to prove the saying, Taylor suffered his third injury in short time - a shoulder injury suffered in the field, on the back of a calf tear and a broken forearm in last season’s home series’. He's set to miss anything from two to six weeks - worst case scenario he will play no part in the tour, at the better end he will miss the early ODIs. For what many term as little more than hit and giggle, the Florida series has wreaked havoc with the Black Caps’ side. Good sense has finally won over stubbornness and Brendon McCullum will join the tour a little earlier to help bolster the Black Caps' playing stocks though he will likely only be available for the final two ODI matches.
Even the greyest clouds have a silver lining – Taylor’s injury opens the door for young Kane Williamson to step into captaincy at international level. He stepped into the role for the second T20 and will continue for at least the first three ODIs in the Caribbean. Williamson has been out of the leadership limelight since he led the New Zealand Under 19s but he looks destined to take over the reins permanently down the line – it’s a matter of when not if. His first trip to the Caribbean will give him the opportunity to get an early taste of leading an international side, albeit one weakened by injury and rest.
The Kiwis lack of preparation showed. A lack of cohesive training at home before the start of a tour is unacceptable, regardless of John Wright’s claims it’s simply a part of the modern game. He told the New Zealand Herald prior to leaving New Zealand - “they (the Black Caps) may be a bit rusty early on and we probably have to expect that” – do we? I understand his charges have a busy 12 months ahead of them but for mine the absence of even a short team camp in New Zealand shows a modicum of disrespect for the silver fern. That an underprepared New Zealand side was outplayed in all facets was to be expected given the Windies were coming off the back of a tough tour of England – it was the margin of the difference in performance that grated.
For the larger part the bowlers missed their lengths, though Kyle Mills and the two offies showed good control in the second match. But the biggest disappointment was the batting – on first viewing it seemed little was learned from the harsh lessons of the 2011/12 season. The line-up struggled top to bottom and resorted to promoting Tim Southee - given recent history it’s unclear what the leadership group hoped would be gained. Most of the batsmen seemed obsessed with boundaries at the expense of strike rotation – for New Zealand to improve their results in limited overs cricket one cannot happen exclusive of the other. Few of our top order have the unbridled power and bat speed of Gayle or Bravo but still struggle to share the strike and put the pressure back on the opposition. That no-one shone through in two innings on a good deck is worrying – many will be looking forward to the time that one-day cricket provides to right the early tour wrongs.
The Kiwi’s struggles with Sunil Narine on a Florida wicket offering little assistance don’t bode well for the remaining matches in the Caribbean – for most of his eight overs the Black Caps batsmen’s efforts were akin to pre-schoolers trying to decipher Shakespeare. The mystery offspinner’s seven wickets reinforced the difficulty of the task the New Zealanders face in the West Indies. The quick wickets of the 1980s and ‘90s have been overrun by slow turners – there’s a strong possibility both sides will play two spinners at Jamaica’s once feared Sabina Park.
The Kiwis have a short turnaround when the touch down in Jamaica – they’ll need the time to get in the nets and get their tour back on track. Whilst many place little importance on T20, the New Zealanders dismantling in Florida will have put a sizeable dent in their collective confidence – no amount of posturing about the positivity in the squad will paper over the re-emerging cracks.
It’s been a decade since the New Zealanders last toured the West Indies – Black Caps supporters will be hoping for their side to stand up and set the standard for a cricket-filled 12 months. A poor return could make for a very long year…
Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.
On a side note, Jesse Ryder (@DijaRyder) makes his boxing debut on the Shane Cameron versus Monte Barrett undercard on Thursday night (NZT) against Radio Sport’s “social commentator”, Mark Watson. Fan or foe, it’s great to see the young man making steady efforts to move forward – should his left hook match that he played on the cricket field it could be a very short “dance”.