Ease the burden on Kane Williamson and Mike Hesson - before it's too late
OPINION: New Zealand Cricket has a problem. A significant one, and it involves their flagship team.
NZC boss David White, his deputy and likely successor Anthony Crummy, coach Mike Hesson and captain Kane Williamson all need to get in a room and talk, otherwise the latter will near breaking point.
Collapses like Saturday's don't happen by accident. For all the flag-waving about the Black Caps' wonderful home summer this team were just clinging on, boosted by stellar individual performances then exposed brutally by a handy South African spinner on a fast bowler's pitch.
In the past five years at home against the big four (Australia, England, India and South Africa), New Zealand have won one of 12 tests. They fought hard in Dunedin but couldn't deliver the knockout punch in Wellington.
The three open secrets about our national team came home to roost: Williamson is struggling with the heavy commercial and media commitments the captaincy brings; chief selector and coach Hesson is exhausted and overburdened and needs a break with his family after being on the road since July; and the team are flat and lacking spark.
And the lack of a world-class batting allrounder which is completely throwing their balance and prompting selection speculators.
Williamson sat out a week of county cricket with Yorkshire way back in July for what team officials described as "mental fatigue". Since then he's led New Zealand in 12 tests, 18 ODIs and four Twenty20 internationals, averaging an outstanding 47.45 with the bat. His 130 against South Africa in Dunedin was one of the best of his 16 test centuries, but you wonder how long it can go on.
His three runs from the Wellington test was the worst two-innings total of his career. Granted, Williamson received two cracking deliveries from Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel, but it shows how much his team depend on him.
They folded like a pack of cards without Williamson and Ross Taylor, and the captain felt it deeply. His press conference was a mix of pain and bemusement, trying to explain others' batting inadequacies when his quality and work ethic is so high.
Having been so single-minded, with spectacular results, Williamson the captain has to get around his players, plot and plan at length with Hesson and the coaching team and face the music when it doesn't go well. With Hesson ill with a stomach bug on Saturday and his trusted senior man Taylor injured, Williamson carried a hefty burden.
Williamson is a very good captain on the field. He's shown himself to be astute, and capable of bold selection calls like dropping regulars Tim Southee and Mitchell Santner who were both justifiable exclusions.
But this can't go on. Even with gaps in their schedule these next two winters, Williamson needs a break from the full-time captaincy for which the $50,000 fee doesn't compensate for the mental toll. If he doesn't resent the extra commitments he's very close to it. Short breaks during the season for him and Hesson weren't enough.
The team's main focus is the 2019 World Cup, so keep Williamson as ODI skipper. Get creative with the test captaincy and hand it back to Taylor, or Tom Latham (form permitting), and let Williamson just bat. It's not an axing, but constructive reshuffling. Taylor also needs to be shown some love again by NZC who communicated his T20 axing poorly, even if the selection decision was justifiable.
And while we're at it, keep Williamson as far as possible from T20 internationals. Even get a bit wacky and give Southee the T20 captaincy and twist the arm of his mate Brendon McCullum, or Stephen Fleming or Daniel Vettori, as 'guest' coach for the tri-series against Australia and England next summer.
Latham is Williamson's obvious successor when the time comes. Those who know him well say this screams out. But now Latham looks a walking wicket after the ill-advised experiment to hand him the ODI wicketkeeping gloves when Tom Blundell should have been tried in the Bangladesh and Australia ODIs.
On the grounds there is no one better, Latham should play the third test in Hamilton in the hope he gets some early luck and finds some nick, but should be in the Champions Trophy squad as backup only, in the hope of reviving his confidence. His form is vital for New Zealand in the next year.
At 1-0 down, Hamilton is all or nothing now on a likely spinner's pitch. Trent Boult should be fit and will add the punch they desperately needed against Quinton de Kock when he turned the test in Wellington.
Santner returns to contention but legspinner Ish Sodhi needs to be the wildcard to try and help Jeetan Patel snare 20 wickets. It shortens the batting but Santner and Colin de Grandhomme added little at No 8 in Dunedin and Wellington.
Taylor should be cajoled to play, even if half fit, to bolster the batting. Williamson will try his absolute level best, but can't do this alone.