New Zealand won a test in Sri Lanka less than fortnight ago. Victory after a 14 year hiatus should stick in the mind and help a despondent New Zealand cricketing public forget Hobart - it won't. The captain was at the forefront with the blade and his seamers continued to hunt as a pack - and succeeded. Regardless of the media source, I've seen no coverage this week - instead the headlines have had no positive spin – on the contrary. That a comprehensive victory is pushed to the background so quickly highlights the ineptitude of cricket administration in this country - a game that is struggling for a public profile cannot afford to bypass an opportunity to put it in the spotlight for the right reasons.
When Ross Taylor was appointed my preferred candidate was Brendon McCullum - not because he's a tactical genius or a guru of man management in the Brearley mould but because it would affect his game less – we need our international quality players to be at their best for New Zealand to succeed. I’m glad Taylor proved me wrong, with the willow at least. McCullum is more outspoken, a man who could step up and react to the perpetual disasters that afflict our national side, maybe with an air of petulance, but we learn to take the good with the bad. What has happened in the past few days doesn't change that - my views, and at times indifference, towards both McCullum and Taylor remain as they always have. I know little of them as men other than I see or hear, and I'll judge them on that - players should be critiqued on results not personality or team unity, as the ECB finally realised.
Teams change captains like bath water, often without any grace or respect, but that isn't the New Zealand way – our sport is professional largely in salary only, and will likely never go down the twisted route of the EPL or our contemporaries in Pakistan. It’s not the decision to replace Taylor that irks, it’s the manner and timing of the change – coups are often less bitter.
Taylor was still learning the intricacies of captaincy - he'd made mistakes and the masses, and I include the media in that group, rightfully passed comment. His tenure was on tenterhooks well before the end of the Sri Lankan tour, as far back as the Wright era, and many forget that. Sentiment changes and a clear view is often absent when a national organisation is seen to both alienate and humiliate their skipper in the public arena.
It has been reported that Taylor was offered the “opportunity” to continue to hold the reins at test level, but the damage was done. If that path was to be trodden it should have happened at the start of Hesson's tenure – decisions made in house, pride swallowed and everyone moving on for the good of New Zealand Cricket. Instead, Hesson took the easy route, eventually undermining his skipper beyond repair, making his role at the front untenable. Coaches and managers have their place but they shouldn’t be the lead puppet master.
Chief Executive David White was left to face the fallout in front of a media who will get nothing more salacious in their Christmas stocking – that’s his job; he runs the organisation, in name at least. But what of Mike Hesson – talk of cancelled flights don’t wash? Why was he not already in Auckland having spent the previous days fleshing out his differences with Taylor in conjunction with the CEO? If the decision to demote Taylor was at the request of the coach then the emphasis on explanation should sit with him – players may occasionally escape the media scrum, management and coaches shouldn’t be extended the same latitude.
A skipper shouldn’t keep his job on individual numbers alone, no matter how compelling - it’s part of the job and their place in the side should be secure on talent alone. Seldom will the deeds of the individual allow him to pull 10 others in the right direction over an extended period. Numbers make the job easier, but they’re not a substitute for a natural leader. Neither Taylor nor McCullum look to offer inspirational genius, but neither should Taylor’s record with the blade as captain cloud the continued slide of the side he led – occasional victories, no matter how much against the odds, can’t paper over those cracks.
The incompetency of NZC’s handling of the debacle aside (though it’s not easy to ignore), the national side will suffer with the absence of their strongest player. It’s easy for key board warriors and armchair critics to criticise Taylor’s decision to skip the outbound tour, though they seem a silent minority – most support his choice given the actions of his employer. I sit on the fence – being humiliated by your boss and belittled in the eyes of your peers undoubtedly makes the situation volatile but cricket is no longer a pastime, it’s a job – although, I’d have likely handed over my resignation letter early on Friday and become a mercenary.
The new skipper, Brendon McCullum, is now in a no win situation. Regardless of what is said, many punters will always believe he played some part in forcing Hesson's hand, and that "player power" was involved - whether it was or not isn’t for someone on the periphery (actually, far further away than that) to speculate, but fans won't care, and why should they? If McCullum leads his side forward will it ever be good enough to quiet the dissenters? In the short term, that seems unlikely, though do it enough and success-starved supporters will forget about the past, until the glow of victory dims. If he loses, the new captain will be lambasted, far more than he has for indiscretions with the blade and a decision to give up the gloves - people aren't concerned with the reality of his statistics at the top of the order or the injury that prevents him keeping. If McCullum will be in the gun, what of Mike Hesson?
The young coach has been open about his friendship with the Otago stalwart, clouding perceptions about the independence of his decision making – the captaincy decision was ratified by the board, not made by them. The decision was solely the realm of the coach, and in truth, such decisions should be - if the side fails the coach is ousted long before his charges, regardless of their attitude, shot selection or statistics. As fans, we all want players to be accountable for their efforts; coaches simply fine tune and act as a motivator. When a batting line-up is constantly below par is the onus on the skipper or the coach?
Hesson must now suffer under the same accountability we demand of his charges. He has what he wanted and the side must deliver. It is his decision that will unsettle those loyal to Taylor or just starting out on their international careers. It is his decision that means his side will be without their one true world-class batsman in South Africa, and possibly beyond. It is his decision that will throw the captaincy efforts of McCullum into a spotlight that he doesn't need - he's still new to the accountability of captaincy and needs time to develop a culture and strategy. International cricket is a difficult proposition; add captaincy into the mix and the pressure moves to another level, especially when the man you're replacing has a superior playing record.
I love our great game, and though I wouldn't say I'm a fervent patriot, I will support New Zealand Cricket through thick and thin. I may not like the decisions of the board and the performance of our national side may anger me, but apathy will never set in - surely that's a good thing? For others I'm not so sure - will this debacle be the final straw for a public who have put cricket on the back burner, even in the height of summer?
The last few days has seen a ground swell of comment on the merits of Taylor - many from the same people who have constantly put the boot into him in the past twelve months, as they so often do with the new skipper. While that remains the prerogative of both the anonymous and the professional, many would do well to take a step back - it's easier to support someone who has been dealt with without dignity, but don't confuse sentiment with performance - the lines seldom blur.
If the New Zealand side had been swept by Sri Lanka in the second test, regardless of the performance of the skipper, would people concern themselves with Taylor's plight, or has a large sparrow early in the summer muddied the waters?
Spare a thought for those selected to tour South Africa. Their joy will be muted and their moment in the spotlight lost – instead, a public relations disaster, lacking even common courtesies, will take centre stage. The new captain has a tough road ahead.
Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. That’s my lot for the captaincy debacle – any angst I feel won’t lessen my support of whoever dons the black cap. I’ll look at a piece on the tour selections, but given the changes it’s not a quick write. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.