|Pallekele International Stadium (courtesy of Getty Images)|
A one win – eight loss record across all three formats in Florida and the Caribbean should never be acceptable – most leading cricketing nations would be looking to run a scythe through their line-up but those in the second tier, such as New Zealand, do not have that luxury. That we are in the middle of the off-season means there are even fewer options to call on to step up at international level.
The New Zealanders’ short tour of India starts with two tests and is rounded out with a pair of T20 internationals before they head to Sri Lanka to do battle with Pakistan and Bangladesh in the group stages of the World T20. At best the trip to the sub-continent will be little more than a step to redemption and growth. A duo of drawn series’ in India and another semi-final World Cup exit would be seen as a success. That may seem pessimistic, but it is nothing more than realism, optimism even – New Zealand’s international returns have been poor for a long time.
The personnel changes between the West Indies tour squad and those to wield the willow in India and the Sri Lankan edition of the World T20 are minimal but well made. The biggest is the ascension of Mike Hesson to one of the most difficult jobs in international cricket.
Another pair of tests in India
Rookie international coach Mike Hesson has a tough task ahead of him, though an Indian tour is not the ordeal is was in the past – India’s cricketing confidence has started to wain and the inception of the IPL means a number of the touring players regularly don coloured clothing in India – the mystique has gone.
A lifetime coach, Hesson has plied his trade in the provinces from an early age yet Chris Martin is still his senior, in age at least. Can he succeed where John Wright failed? Wright appeared constantly frustrated at the repetition of mistakes by his batting charges and the same weak excuses they trotted out about playing their natural game (read: over-zealous attacking), regardless of how often it led to their downfall.
Hesson has no international playing experience to draw on – if players ignored a Kiwi stalwart, can a green horn make changes? The big upside for Hesson could be his friendship, and shared respect, with Brendon McCullum – a man with substantial influence in the New Zealand dressing room. If Hesson can get McCullum singing from his song book his words may not fall on deaf ears. If they do, it might be time for the new boss to start thinning dead wood – the current side has few depths left to plumb. Only time will tell whether the Hesson era will lead to an attitude shift and an upturn in results.
New batting (and fielding) coach Bob Carter replaces Trent Woodhill in another back room switch. After a four year stint as Canterbury coach and time spent supporting the New Zealand side during John Bracewell’s tenure, Carter should have a strong understanding of the charges he has been tasked with turning around – his backing of Hesson is paramount to building a strong back office.
With only one title in four years in Canterbury, Carter’s record didn’t live up to those of his predecessors but much of the red and black’s domestic talent had departed before his tenure. The dual role he takes sees him being asked to make changes to a batting line-up that flatters to deceive and a fielding unit that has let its standards slip in the last 12 months – a side with few world-class players needs to be faultless in the field.
On the playing front there are only two changes – one through form, the other injury – neither was avoidable.
Dean Brownlie is in the midst of a lengthy form slump. Though he lead from the front in his first three tests, things have taken a turn for the worse ever since. He was the glue that held the batting line-up together in Australia in late-2011 and looked to be the answer to New Zealand’s troublesome middle order weakness, but he hasn’t come close to a defining innings in the following nine months. Continuing to play him would run the risk of finally breaking his resolve – leaving him out of the squad makes good cricketing sense. Brownlie’s immediate international future will depend heavily on a change of form in New Zealand’s first class domestic competition - the Plunket Shield.
James Franklin comes back into the New Zealand side after an 18 month test hiatus, though he hadn’t played for nearly two years prior to his recall for final test against Pakistan at the Basin Reserve in January 2011 - he hasn’t played regularly since the 2008/9 season with the inbound tours of the West Indies and India.
Franklin’s exclusion from the limited overs squads for the tour to Florida and the Caribbean was surprising – the selectors’ rationale that England’s domestic T20 competition was better preparation for the matches ahead (more on that later) was puzzling at best. However, there was little to indicate that he had a future in New Zealand’s white clothing. Having played in only 27 tests over an 11 year international career, most as a frontline bowler or a bowling all-rounder, Franklin has more recently been chosen as a middle order batsman. With an average a touch over 20 it’s time for him to show his has international credentials with the willow.
Is his selection based on a couple of strong performances in IPL 5 or simply that the choices are limited? Both India’s pitches and its bowlers lack the pace of many other top draw international test units – two of the weapons Franklin most fears. He will enjoy the slower, turning tracks on the sub-continent and will be looking to use the two tests as a chance to shine and secure a long term spot in the test side – the new coaching team start with a clean slate and those who prosper stand a good chance of remaining in the frame through until the conclusion of the England series’ next summer. It's likely Franklin may secure a spot for the next 12 to 24 months until Brownlie finds his form or Latham comes of age. This appears to be his final roll of the dice - such a realisation often strengthens the resolve of an elder statesman.
The mercurial Daniel Vettori remains out of the test side as he continues to recover from the strained abductor muscle which kept him out of the second test in the West Indies. Given his returns in recent seasons, is his absence the beginning of the end for a distinguished career, as the side's premium spinner at least? (I’ve written of his recent returns before, so I won’t cover it again here.) My preference would be that Vettori threw his lot into limited overs cricket but worked to help one of the young crop progress at test level while he holds down a batting spot. Will New Zealand miss his ability to take wickets or simply his capacity to hold up an end and dry up the runs, and score a few?
Vettori’s seat will be kept warm by Jeetan Patel, whose returns with Warwickshire in the County Championship see him in some of the strongest form he has shown throughout a long domestic career. The question remains whether he can translate that into wickets on Bunsen burners in India.
In his first full County season Patel sits 10th on the list of top wicket takers and has been the stand out bowler for the Bears – his absence could be telling as Warwickshire look to hold onto their lead at the top of Division One. He’s taken 46 wickets at 22, and has five wickets in an innings four times. Patel’s ascension back to the international ranks could be bitter sweet for the Edgbaston faithful.
Since his test debut in 2006 Patel has played just 13 tests – 40 wickets at an average of close to 50 don’t do his talent justice. His opportunities have only presented themselves on the rare occasion New Zealand have fielded two spinners or when Vettori has suffered some form of spinner’s RSI – he is yet to play a full three test series though given the itinerary of recent years that’s as much an indictment of New Zealand’s international status.
A lack of confidence from his captains hasn’t helped but that tends to go hand in hand with spinners until they prove themselves at the pinnacle of our great game. Never shy to have a go, at 32 Patel will be looking to make good in what could be his final opportunity in the black cap – his future will depend as much on Vettori’s future plans as it does on his returns in India. I fear he’ll get two matches and then return to the domestic treadmill, both for Wellington and Warwickshire, never to be seen in New Zealand’s whites again – more’s the pity.
Indian T20s and onto Sri Lanka
Whilst New Zealand constantly punches above their weight in the limited overs arena, results of late have taken a nose dive. With the exception of captain Taylor’s hundred in the third ODI in the Caribbean, New Zealand was roundly outclassed in the seven internationals. Will the injection of new players alleviate the slide or is the cupboard bare?
There are no real surprises in the four players dropped from the West Indies’ tour squad. The three Cantabrians; Andy Ellis, Tom Latham and Dean Brownlie, and Northern Districts’ Daniel Flynn make way for a rested Brendon McCullum, James Franklin, Adam Milne and a returning Daniel Vettori.
Ellis has found his level in domestic cricket – the international stage seems a step too far. That’s nothing against a man who genuinely appears to give his all for New Zealand and who local fans want to see succeed, but at the highest level he is best described as a “jack of all trades but master of none”. Brownlie is a long term prospect at test level but at times looks lost in the shorter formats – that he is at a trough in his career form means he was never going to be selected. When his star rises again he will undoubtedly be seen in whites for his country. 20 year old Tom Latham is a work in progress and gained a place on the Windies tour after Brendon McCullum was given a rest before an arduous 12 month international schedule. The true test of his mettle will be whether he can continue to grow in the next two seasons and live up to the potential everyone can see – I would love to see him in the middle order of all formats sooner rather than later – just not yet. Daniel Flynn was an interesting selection for the Florida series and is another who was really only warming Franklin’s spot after it was decided he would get better preparation playing T20 for Essex – the less said of that decision the better – one can only hope that the choice was John Wright’s alone and did not involve those left at the selectorial helm.
The surprise inclusion is 20 year old Central Districts’ speedster Adam Milne – whether he is the right choice for a T20 tour of the sub-continent remains to be seen. Mike Hesson maintains he has been picked off the back of an outstanding effort as part of New Zealand’s winter development squad but the step up to international cricket is a sizeable one. Milne’s debut as an 18 year old greenhorn against Pakistan post-Christmas 2010 saw him nearly break three figures is his eight T20 overs – 1 for 94 is a tough introduction for a young man. Milne was then summarily dropped before missing a large chunk of cricket through injury.
In total Milne has played only six first class fixtures, nine domestic 50 over matches and less than 20 T20s across the HRV Cup and the Champions’ League. However, that should be tempered with the realisation that New Zealand produces so few genuine quicks, so like leggies they get a crack at the highest level as soon as they show promise. The early career of players like Australia’s Pat Cummins should sound a warning to our selectors that following suit may not be the best decision long term. Selectors need to balance that risk with any short term gain - problems with injury and confidence can take a long time to heal in young men.
Former New Zealand bowler and national selector Dion Nash made a similar assertion in a recent interview – he maintains that "with T20, it is part of that game to actually get collared and that doesn't change what it can do to a player's confidence." It may sound a little backward but I’m not sure the development of a young quick is best served in the shorter forms where a body that is not yet battle hardened is asked to produce six different deliveries an over – it leads to a lack of rhythm and tremendous strain on the body, but that debate is for another day.
It will be interesting to see whether Milne gets a start in the opening two matches of the World T20 against either Bangladesh or Pakistan and will likely depend on him producing something special in India. If New Zealand is serious about Milne’s long term international future he should work towards a test spot where he’ll have the opportunity to build into his work and learn from the experienced Chris Martin, though his days must now be numbered.
Vettori’s retirement U-turn in making himself available for the T20 squad is a huge plus for the Kiwis. In spite of his previously announced retirement, New Zealand’s most successful limited overs’ cricketer wanted a World Cup swansong and New Zealand Cricket were happy to oblige – if only it was as easy for a naturalised Englishman with a flair for the brash.
Vettori may not be able to singlehandedly turn around a sinking ship but he’ll at least provide a sizeable life raft. He is a T20 master and provides opportunities for other bowlers by strangling runs from one end. His tactical nous and uncanny ability with the willow provide a balance the side has been lacking. Long term I’d rather Vettori threw his lot into limited overs cricket – his biggest mark would be in providing guidance to emerging cricketers in the shorter forms and helping New Zealand get wins they so desperately need.
James Franklin’s selction was something of a no-brainer – he should have joined his teammates in Florida and continued on for the ODIs in the Caribbean – instead he was left to ply his trade for Essex. He has the ability to adapt his play to what the team needs – he can play as an opener, a closer and on occasion a pinch hitter. In 20 matches over the fourth and fifth editions of the IPL his figures are respectable without setting the world alight though he largely played as a batting jack of all trades and was considered a valuable part of the Mumbai Indians side – he looks comfortable in Indian conditions which has likely given him a leg up over others. Given he’s been playing in England and not coming out of indoor nets in New Zealand he has time at the crease under his belt – a significant advantage over others in the mix.
At international T20 level Franklin has played on 23 occasions with an average close to 25 – run of the mill numbers but he has never had a long stretch in the side or a secure batting position – no one is likely to produce gold when all they get is a random selection of unwanted metals. In 10 matches in the Friends Life T20 he has averaged 28 for Essex and gone past 50 on two occasions. He hasn’t set the competition alight as he did with Gloucestershire in 2010 but he provides consistency the New Zealanders have lacked. Franklin sits behind only McCullum, Taylor and Styris on New Zealand’s highest T20 runs list with 2488 at 31.49.
Spare a thought for Aucklander Michael Bates – he has shone through in the past two seasons of limited overs domestic cricket and has an enviable record in the HRV Cup. However, after a hit out against Zimbabwe and South Africa last summer he has been overlooked for both the recent Caribbean crusade and now the T20s on the sub-continent. “The Master” deserved a longer stint on the back of his domestic efforts but has again been omitted. Bates has the ability to mirror the efforts of Cantabrian Geoff Allott in the 1990s – does anyone remember the 1999 World Cup?
Will the World T20 be the swansong for New Zealand’s gentle giant, Jacob Oram? When he’s on the field and fully fit (or as much as an aged cricketer can be), he is a fantastic bowling asset, especially on the slow sub-continent wickets. However, he seldom completes a full series either through injury or being rested in the hope of preventing one – if New Zealand progress to the second stage of the World Cup will he be available to play?
For all the perceived pessimism I hope the New Zealand side prove everyone wrong, myself included – even the most loyal of fans are being tested by the current crop.
The first test starts at Hyderabad on Thursday. An Indian side without Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman will have a very different look to it – it’s likely to narrow the gap though the gap will still exist. New Zealand’s World T20 campaign kicks off against Bangladesh at Pallekele on 21 September.
Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Does anyone see a quick fix for the boys in black or will the road be paved with more heartache? Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.