|Southee says it all...(Courtesy of stuff.co.nz)|
Has the New Zealand side failed to live up to expectations? Unquestionably, but does that say more about the inflated views we have of our national side than the shortcomings in their performance? Ranked sixth in the T20 ICC rankings when leaving the Caribbean, New Zealand ended the tournament having slipped to eighth – on this occasion the numbers don’t lie. One win in five is a poor return – victory against a hapless Bangladesh will satisfy no-one.
Firmly ensconced in eighth across all three formats, why is it the New Zealand sporting public expects such regular success? Though the side constantly boxes above its weight at ICC tournaments and progresses to the semi-final stages, those results have to be seen in the context of the team’s overall record. Many New Zealand fans still suffer from a lingering hangover from the halcyon days of Hadlee, Turner and Crowe – to compare modern sides to those of our standout era is unfair and steeped in folly - it’s unlikely New Zealand will ever reach such heights again.
New Zealand’s first outing provided the individual highlight of their tournament – the game’s top ranked T20 batsmen wreaked havoc on a Bangladesh attack without any answers. Often perceived as a showman and a flat track bully at home, Brendon McCullum is the ringmaster of the T20 circus. His returns in the other formats shouldn’t cloud people’s views of his standing in the T20 arena.
McCullum’s 123 off 58 balls put the batsmen back in the limelight after Ajantha Mendis’ six wicket haul in the tournament’s opening game hinted at the possible dominance of ball over willow. McCullum looks a cricketer on another level when he paces an innings. When he sets himself early, he has an ability to increase the tempo of his knock in short time – Bangladesh felt the full force of a man focussed on setting the tone for his teammates.
McCullum’s second T20I hundred makes him the benchmark – he is the first cricketer to pass three figures twice at international level. His 123 reclaimed the highest score from South Africa’s Richard Levi, and took McCullum past 1500 international runs. His 1655 run career aggregate is the highest by nearly 500 runs – he’s one of only six cricketers to pass the 1,000 run mark. That he has averaged a shade under 37 at a strike rate of 135 in 53 matches is a testament to his undoubted ability. McCullum’s T20 average is higher than either his ODI or Test returns – his T20 figures should be heralded; instead we (myself included) so often throw rocks at his other records.
The flip side was that McCullum’s other four innings yielding a disappointing 89 runs. He and Taylor act as talismen for the Kiwi batting effort – for New Zealand to succeed at T20 level they require one of the pair to lead from the front every time. So why didn’t he open the innings? McCullum at the strikers’ end is more fearsome than any combination of Nicol, Guptill, Franklin or Williamson – why not give him the greatest possible opportunity, every time?
Like the bowl-outs that preceded them, super overs (or one over eliminators) are little more than a lottery – a cruel way to lose a match after the highs and lows of a tense three and a half-hour battle. But in a two horse race, one would expect that the results would balance themselves out – that being the case, New Zealand are well overdue for victory.
Of the eight tied T20I matches, New Zealand has been involved in five. Since the introduction of the super over, there have been five ties – New Zealand has contested four of them, for a single victory. Is that simply the rub of the green, or are the Kiwi cricketers struggling to cope with the pressure to deliver without any second chances?
In the space of five matches at the World T20, New Zealand have twice stared super over victory in the face only for it to turn on its tail, overtaken by the gloom of defeat. Both Sri Lanka and the West Indies will progress to the semi-finals on the back of super over success – had New Zealand prevailed they would have been odds on to top their group. They showed courage to battle back from the brink and take Sri Lanka to a super over, but conversely they should have beaten the Windies with time to spare – T20 doesn’t forgive mistakes.
Like most sportsmen, cricketers are creatures of habit – consistency builds comfort and allows them to flourish. For five matches Mike Hesson defied that premise – constant changes to the New Zealand batting line-up perplexed everyone except the opposition.
The one constant was Brendon McCullum at three, though why didn’t he open up? A man who has made his name fronting the opposition from ball one should have been given free reign to partner Martin Guptill – a quick start, like a poor one, sets the tone for those to follow.
Some of the batting changes lacked any recognisable cricketing logic. There seemed little coherent thought in many of the decisions – left and right hand combinations may throw doubt into a bowler’s mind but not at the expense of one of the side’s premier batsmen. Unless they play as night watchmen, neither Vettori nor Oram can justify batting above Ross Taylor - how does one of your side’s leading batsmen move down the order in the game’s shortest form to be usurped by two elder statesmen?
Outside the top three of Nicol, Guptill and McCullum, the rest of the batting order often looked like it had been drawn out of a hat. If Mike Hesson is pulling the strings then one would have to question his logic; if he isn’t, then he needs to start.
For the larger part of the first four matches, Kane Williamson was little more than a spectator – one of New Zealand’s shining lights was reduced to a dim flicker in the night. A fine fieldsman, New Zealand needs all their players to contribute – Kane Williamson’s time will come, but it’s not now. As the finest Kiwi batting prospect since Martin Crowe, Mike Hesson would do well to allow Williamson to continue his development on a glut of first-class cricket. If we are to see him reach the heights in the coming years he needs to be left to concentrate on his game at a pace he’s comfortable with – the potential rewards will come to bear down the road, and New Zealand Cricket will be the better for it.
Will New Zealand’s exit in Pallekele be the swan song for some of New Zealand’s elder statesmen? Jacob Oram, Kyle Mills and Daniel Vettori have been fine servants of the New Zealand game but age creeps up on everyone.
Vettori missed New Zealand’s final match due to an Achilles injury and he may well be forced to sit out the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka. He will likely continue as a test specialist if his body allows, but sadly his star is dimming. Jacob Oram has remained largely injury free during the tournament, but where he once galloped around the outfield like a marauding stallion, with age he more closely resembles a Clydesdale – dependable without setting the world alight. Similarly, at 33 Kyle Mills is unlikely to hang on until Bangladesh in two years’ time.
All three have made significant contributions to the New Zealand game but everyone must take their leave eventually. The finish may not have been as the players would script it though it so seldom is, more’s the pity.
New Zealand should be bitterly disappointed with an exit in the group stages but the results matched their standing in our great game. Twice they fell at the final hurdle – had they snuck the two super overs they could have progressed atop their pool – from there it’s anyone’s to win. Unfortunately, cricket isn’t influenced by wistful stargazing…
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