<i>Cricket revival means getting back to test basics</i>

21:38, Feb 17 2009

Do Kiwis still give a full toss about New Zealand test cricket?



Does the hallowed code live up to its traditional status as our most popular summer sport?

Is there anyone who would rather watch the Black Caps-Bangladesh than the Australia-India grudge match in Perth?

You tell me. As an old softballer, I prefer to pad up and play a cross-batted swipe back to the bowler.


But I will lead with one of my chins and suggest the upcoming England-Black Caps series looms as a watershed for test cricket in this country. The longer form of the great game is fast falling into the category of vicarious sports. This is usually led by boxing, rugby league and American football which leave transfixed fans flinching on the sidelines because of their brutal, blood-tingling hits. Yet they would no more climb into the ring or over the white lines than step in front of a double-decker bus.

Test cricket, in New Zealand at least, has become a vicarious pursuit because people want to know what's going on but cannot be bothered getting out of the deckchair to watch it. It's now background noise on radio or television while Kiwis get on with the serious business of summer, by the lake at the beach, or painting the house.

Wellington is supposed to be the sport's spiritual home in New Zealand. We are constantly being told that the Basin Reserve is the consummate cricket venue. Yet how strong is the interest when only 4000 fans can be bothered going to the Basin on a sunny summer's Sunday to watch the rout of the bumbling, fumbling Bangladeshis?

The Black Caps' mediocrity must take some of the blame.

We were spoiled in the '80s when the careers of two cricket greats, Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe, intersected. The New Zealand team did not always win back then but it did not lose a home series for a decade.

John Wright, Bruce Edgar, Geoff Howarth, Jeremy Coney and more latterly, Andrew Jones, rarely threw away their wickets in the cavalier manner the more talented Stephen Fleming has throughout his career.

Test cricket also seems to suffer from the 21st century's attention deficit disorder disease. Too many Kiwis now run around like blue-bummed flies in the name of mammon.

They do not have the time to devote five days to basking on the bank at a test cricket match. Or even two for a New Zealand- Bangladesh encounter.

But cricket has not helped itself either. Marketing is now the mantra. The game's authorities seem more interested in attracting new punters than retaining the loyal purists. Hence we have one-day internationals every day ending in "y" and hit-and-giggle Twenty20 "internationals".

Perhaps I romanticise test cricket. Perhaps it was always only attended here by two men and their mangy cur. Can anyone recall queuing longer than five minutes to get through the Lancaster Park gates for a cricket test?

No? But then I do not remember New Zealand Cricket having to resort to rent a crowd by bussing in scores of schoolkids to fill the stands when Hadlee and Crowe were in full flow.

Like the two saddle-sore Australian kayakers for much of their trans-Tasman sortie, I may be paddling against the tide. But the pace and cadence of test cricket appeals more than the formulaic final 10-overs runs chase of the ubiquitous one-day game or the silly slogging of Twenty20. Cricket is not in terminal decline, but it is in a respite ward, hooked up to a drip. Fortunately, a doctor – Justin Vaughan – is now in charge. I'm sure he would diagnose the game to be in rude health, with junior playing figures rising like norovirus numbers at a scout jamboree. But the heart of the sport – test cricket – is in urgent need of a major bypass.

The players' pockets may be bulging, but there are few other beneficiaries here since the game turned professional. The Black Caps were a better team in the amateur days.

So what is the answer? How about playing more tests, not less. It is a travesty that cricket measures its world champion by one-day internationals, not tests. How can the Black Caps get better when they played just two tests in '07, World Cup year?

Why can't they play more longer-form cricket at domestic level? Why do we squander the talents of senior Black Caps by slotting them into our national Twenty20 side?

Do the All Blacks play on the sevens circuit instead of Super 14? I look forward to the day Black Cap tests become consistent contests. Until then, thank God (or, at least Dr W. G. Grace) for the third round of the Andrew Symonds-Harbhajan Singh stoush. No wonder they call the Perth pitch the Waca.

The Press