Thursday, May 16, 2013

SPIN Cricket: A touch of Old Blighty in Aotearoa

The good folks at SPIN Cricket did me the honour of publishing the following article in Issue 71 – May 2013. Take a look at their website or follow them on Twitter @SPINCricket.


The final stanza of England’s New Zealand tour reaffirmed why we all love test cricket - whether Kiwi, English or neutral, the outro in Auckland is what keeps drawing us back to our great game. As a New Zealander I was torn between disappointment and pride, but on reflection the latter will win - as a cricket tragic I found nirvana.

Victory in a home series against England has eluded New Zealand since a 1-0 victory in 1983/4 – it’ll be 2018 before we have the chance to redress the imbalance. Prior to the English arriving New Zealand had lost seven of their last eight tests and had sunk to eighth in the ICC test rankings - England have given up the Test Mace but are still a stunning bridesmaid. All but the most optimistic of Kiwis felt a drawn series would have exceeded expectations - those huddling under duvets with tea and crumpets late into wintry nights are unlikely to be so jovial.

The final day of the third test in Auckland was one of the games’ finest advertisements, New Zealand left with 19 balls to claim the final English scalp after a stoic fight back looked to have sealed the draw with four overs remaining. When Kane Williamson snaffled Broad and Anderson within five balls of his surprise return to the bowling crease, an upbeat Eden Park crowd dared to believe - they narrowly missed being part of a modern cricketing history lesson but the love is starting to return.

Three draws could be perceived as dull cricket, they were not. Where we produced green seamers on which New Zealand's military mediums appeared to bowl seaming grenades, set to explode at any time, the 2013 trio more closely resembled State Highway One. There needs to be a more measured balance to produce a contest between bat and ball, but would the decks even be mentioned if we hadn't lost time to rain in Dunedin and Wellington? There was a possibility of a result in both but for autumnal precipitation. And then there was the Auckland road - it wasn't a pitch for the ages but if one judged the world solely by Twitter they’d assume the match was on course for a Sri Lanka versus Bangladesh "epic" in Galle - Boult, Southee and Wagner disproved that quickly and emphatically - the ball doesn't swing when it pitches in the bowlers half...

While I’d rather bury my head in the sand, Eden Park is not a long term international venue. Test cricket in an empty concrete jungle, on a drop in deck, does nothing to enhance cricket’s reputation in New Zealand or abroad. It's time to return to our Holy Trinity – University Oval, The Basin and Seddon Park – that excludes our biggest city but those in the administrative corridors need to look at developing a long term alternative. At test level at least, boutique grounds with grass embankments, and without the distraction of an impending rugby fixture, are the best way forward for our great game, even if it means our largest population has to travel to see test cricket, though the sparse numbers who attended prior to the final day will make the decision an easier one. That they missed such an occasion says more about Auckland's cricket community than its marquee venue. The atmosphere and crowds numbers on the final day shouldn't sway New Zealand Cricket in their decision - I love test cricket but it is seldom so special.

England arrived with the Kiwis at their mercy and the result close to a formality, or so said populist scribes - a few weeks later and the same cheerleaders were the first to throw spears before back tracking when The Beard showed his worth as England’s all-rounder. It's not that England performed terribly, but it doesn't compare favourably when you consider career records and ICC standings. No side can perform to its optimum at every juncture; Twickenham last December bears that out.

England was below par, though it would be unjust to suggest they did so solely of their own accord - New Zealand played their part. I had hoped for more in the tests, barring Auckland where I made an imprint in my seat for a full five days, but for the most part we saw little more than glimpses of genius where we hoped for an enduring epic. England's seamers generally bowled too short and Monty was out bowled by a 32 year old on international debut - any debate as to whether he could challenge Swann's spot have surely been killed off. That only Trent Boult averaged fewer than 30 will be seen as a reflection on the test strips but there was a lack of consistency across the board - when bowlers worked to plans the rewards came.

Jimmy Anderson never quite reached the heights he’d have hoped for; though it's fitting he'll get his 300th test scalp on "England's green and pleasant land". Stuart Broad showed his class in Wellington, his 6/51 giving his side a shot at victory, before rain quickly took it back and Finn toiled hard in Dunedin, but exceptions aside there was little to savour.

But it was a chance to see England’s celebrated top order that warmed the heart of every Kiwi cricket tragic – so rare is it that we see such quality. Take your pick of the blokes wielding the willow; they all sit near the top of their trade.

Like many of my peers I yearned to see Captain Cook bat for days - I'm a patriot of cricket over country. It's rare to see a player so polished at his craft grace our grounds and for him to finish sub-40 was disappointing. I've read media comment questioning his captaincy future - when did football journalism spill over into cricket?

Jonathan Trott doesn't seem to get the dues he deserves at home, and I'm not sure any heroics in the Kiwi sun would have changed that. Given his father coaches here, Kiwis to a man wish he'd caught the flight to New Zealand with him and donned our black cap. He seems to relish the battle of wills that define test cricket - that his only real success was a near six hour ton in the first innings at The Basin left me wanting more.

The opportunity to see Joe Root was rich with anticipation, but youthful over exuberance curtailed many a stay, though he showed admirable concentration at Eden Park to end the tour. In the limited overs matches he changed the tempo at soon as he entered the fray but he couldn't translate that over five days - he will, but mentally he doesn't seem quite ready yet - those who see more of the County game than I will undoubtedly put me right.

Nick Compton compiled patient back to back hundreds in Dunedin and Wellington but they were bookended with low scores – his place is surely secure through the Ashes, but I'd have enjoyed seeing him dig in at The Garden, if only so I could see more of a man who I’d listened to commentators wax lyrical about early in last season’s County Championship.

And to those who are determined to find the next Flintoff or Botham, it's a forlorn search - they come along once in a generation, and then only if the stars align. However, Matt Prior fills what many see as the all-rounders’ void. He's a fine wicketkeeper and his batting prowess at seven provides the perfect link between the top and lower order - he has a knack for adapting his batting to suit any situation. His final day ton in Auckland was the dominant feature of a courageous English effort, the antithesis of so many of his innings where stroke play and bravado snatch the initiative. 

The taste of humble pie is akin to being forced to eat vegemite on my toast, but during the test series it has provided some fine eating. Marmageddon is now officially over but the feast I have been served up after dismissing the selections of Peter Fulton and Neil Wagner seemed to never end – one dessert course became a degustation menu, and I was forced to order it all.

Criticise Fulton for the slowness of his first innings ton in Auckland if you will but he has offered up what every New Zealand fan has asked for; he's shown application and batted time – rarer than a scorecard reading 250/1 since Mark Richardson stopped thinking negatively. Fulton raised back to back hundreds in the second dig becoming only the fourth New Zealander to achieve the milestone – in doing so he reminded us all he was capable of using all the gears when the situation requires. He joins Glenn Turner, Geoff Howarth and Andrew Jones as the only new Zealanders to achieve the feat - that's rarefied air for a man considered lucky to be afforded another chance - his deeds at The Garden will ensure he holds his spot for some time to come.

Wagner has shown huge heart and spirit, a leader in terms of attitude and application. Boult and Southee turned the test on its head in Auckland but Wagner was a constant thorn in English sides. He lead all-comers with 12 wickets, though it's worth noting he wouldn't have featured if Doug Bracewell had simply hired a maid.

Bruce Martin has surely put another nail in the test coffin of Daniel Vettori, should injury not hit it home. After 14 seasons of domestic cricket there is little that fazes the wily veteran, his career having blossomed since a move up SH1. He looked to struggle on the series' final day under the weight of expectation, his own, but he is still an international novice. Bucko didn't rip through the English side but he never looked overawed or out of his depth. Years of domestic repetition have allowed him to fully understand his game - our domestic stalwarts should be treasured, they enrich our game immensely.

Hamish Rutherford squarely trumped his father's debut, though Marshall, Garner, Holding et al. in the Caribbean creates an unfair comparison to a seasoned England attack on good batting surfaces. He may struggle when the ball goes sideways at pace but it's been a fine start. His 171 at the University Oval on debut had statisticians searching their almanacks, so proficient was his start. Both he and Fulton can feel slighted if Martin Guptill is reinstated at the top for the Lord's test.

But it's the influence of Brendon McCullum which deserves the greatest credit - the man many Kiwis sadly love to hate, has been a revelation in this series. Forget the arrogance so many perceive, the size of his IPL salary or the ink that he wears with pride, McCullum should be defined by none of it.  His move to six has fundamentally changed New Zealand's batting makeup - an average in excess of 80 at close to a run a ball presents a compelling argument. His move creates balance where previously little existed and it allows him to dictate terms, while his captaincy seems both considered and more focused on positivity. With Hesson, the pair have instilled a belief in their side that has been noticeably absent since Stephen Fleming departed.

“And did those feet in ancient times” – the strains of Jerusalem ringing out to signal the start to a day’s play sent shivers up the spine. The subsequent chants of “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy Anderson” quashed any sentimentality. The Barmy Army make the test experience a far more colourful one, adding an atmosphere that is sorely lacking at most New Zealand venues until the lads have had a couple of lagers and security confiscates a beach ball. When their side struggles, as they did for so long in Auckland, the volume rises to another level, an almost tangible force lifting the spirits of a flagging eleven.

To an outsider, they show the very best of British sporting culture - raucous positivity and unconditional support for team and country. The flag of St. George adorned our grounds, with shout outs to "soccer" sides many Kiwis have never heard of - sadly, none of the touring party saw fit to pay homage to the mighty Gunners. The sea of white and red welcomed anyone into their corner of the ground, even one misguided “supporter” draped in an Aussie flag – I guess it's better than watching your side stumble from one disaster to the next in India.

Where next for New Zealand? Finally Hesson and McCullum seem to have begun to steady a ship that so often skirts near the rocks. It was the right choice to move on from Ross Taylor’s captaincy, but many ignored that in favour of heaping attention on the New Zealand Cricket PR disasters and half-truths. The side finally seem to have distinct plans and the willingness and application to stick to them. One swallow doesn't make a summer but the plume of this one is a sight to behold.

For so long "famous" efforts (I had penned victories on the fourth evening…) are followed by schoolboy disasters - it's time for the current crop to back up this performance and change the perceptions of a cynical New Zealand public. A trouncing in the return leg over the winter will confine this series to the archives, their efforts little more than an Everest amongst our rolling hills.

I'd love to visit in May but it may have to wait until the kids have shut the door for the final time and gone out on their own - sometime 30 years down the track, or so I'm told. In the short term, I'll console myself with memories of an enjoyable tour and the anticipation of late night winter viewing with an espresso and a pile of marmite toast.

Haere rā . Hoki pai atu ki ō koutou kāinga.


Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi. Better still, go out and buy a copy of SPIN Cricket– the subscribers’ supplement includes an interview I did with George Dobell.

6 comments:

  1. Great article my friend

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Mr/Miss/Mrs Mous - much appreciated. It's more a novel than a chat but it was great fun to write, much of it during the final test. Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like all the metaphors in the last few paragraphs

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Stuart. It was enjoyable to write the majority of the article live at the 3rd test on my tablet. I normally wirte in dribs and drabs in the evenings once the kids are in bed so it was a new experience.

      Delete
  4. Nice summary of the tour. Such a good battle between two fairly even teams and who could have said that before it began.

    Roll on smashing them in the northern hemisphere this may/june.

    ReplyDelete