<i>In defence of Lou Vincent</i>

BATTLING BATSMAN: News that New Zealand cricketer Lou Vincent is battling depression has prompted a warning that many other sports are awash with undiagnosed depression.
BATTLING BATSMAN: News that New Zealand cricketer Lou Vincent is battling depression has prompted a warning that many other sports are awash with undiagnosed depression.

Call me contrary but I couldn't help enjoying the manner in which Lou Vincent signed up with the rebels last week, at the same time provoking New Zealand Cricket into terminating his contract and questioning his ethics and decency.

For someone who'd suffered more than most from the national body's near-delinquent selection policies, a metaphorical middle finger was not, perhaps, an inappropriate gesture.

After all, but for some of the most bizarre reasoning, this was a batsman who should have been a fixture in New Zealand's test, ODI and Twenty20 sides for the past four or five years. At the time he was dropped from the test team in 2005-06, he'd scored 92 in his most recent innings and had averaged 56.66 over his previous nine.

If the 29-year-old right-hander never plays another test, which is likely, he will leave the game with an average of 34.15 from 23 matches, including three centuries and nine half-centuries. That is, he managed to pass the 50-mark in almost half the games in which he played.

To put his effort in perspective, after 23 tests Martin Crowe was averaging was 30.08. John Wright was averaging 27.97, Bevan Congdon 29.18. Stephen Fleming was doing marginally better but had only just scored his maiden century. It would be 63 tests before he notched his third.

Yet, as Vincent recounted at the time, he was expelled from the test squad for having the temerity to express a preference for batting down the order, rather than opening. He hadn't insisted on any one position, of course; merely singled out a preference. But in the words of John Bracewell, then the sole selector, there was no room for a "reluctant" opener.

We could go into more detail about what happened after that, but suffice it to say the top-order batting has been a spectacular failure ever since (think Peter Fulton, Michael Papps, Hamish Marshall, Craig Cumming), and Vincent's faith in the Black Caps' operation has been irreparably damaged.

People might point to Vincent's recent acknowledgement of his battle with depression, but that is neither here nor there. He was a successful international cricketer when he suffered from the condition, and he was also - at times - unsuccessful. The bigger point is that he doesn't want to play for New Zealand under the current regime. He's happy to play for Auckland or even the rebel league - but not for the Black Caps.

In fact, before being spirited away to India on Friday, he told the Final Whistle that he felt neither passion nor pride at the thought of playing again for Bracewell's New Zealand team, and wouldn't have been able to accept another contract from NZC even if one had been offered. Such was the extent of his disillusionment.

There are those who have wasted no time in condemning Vincent's cavalier behaviour towards his NZC contract. Radio talkback callers have questioned his integrity, internet bloggers have showered opprobrium on him and even lawyers amusingly enough have accused him of being unscrupulous.

But let's not become too precious about this. Vincent only had a couple of months of his NZC contract to run, which means the amount in question was negligible - probably involving something between $15,000 and $20,000. He wasn't going to be required to play for New Zealand during that time and therefore his defection to the dark side wasn't going to impact on NZC's operation, or their chances of success.

On the other hand, NZC had already publicly stated that they would refuse to release players for the rebel league. If Vincent had gone to them and explained his intentions, they would have merely attempted to dissuade him; wasting his time and jeopardising his chances of landing what is rumoured to be a US$350,000 deal. Both parties knew a release would never be forthcoming.

And just on that: it's a bit hard to accept that NZC can so stridently claim the high ground on this when their stance on the ICL is so legally fraught, and when their insistence on refusing to release players for the so-called rebel league has yet to be tested in court. The players' association, remember, reckons NZC's stand is tantamount to restraint-of-trade.

At least Vincent was honest. He could have demanded a release on medical and family grounds, as Craig McMillan did, and then signed for the rebels a day later. Instead he did what he knew he had to do, making sure he landed the biggest windfall of his career and secured the financial future of his family.

After years of being dicked around by people who evidently saw his trust, honesty and lifelong naivety as a weakness, and who were willing to exploit his goodwill for their own unfathomable ends, he's finally done the best thing for himself, his wife Elly and their beautiful daughter, Molly.

The irony is that a week which started with the temporary loss of one of New Zealand brightest young talents in Jesse Ryder, ended with the loss of an arguably far bigger resource in Vincent, who - in a more sympathetic environment - might have enjoyed another three or four years of international cricket.

With Ryder, you could argue that the setback was almost unavoidable short of posting a couple of baby-sitters outside the team hotel to track Ryder's every move, NZC could hardly have done much more. With Vincent, however, the loss was entirely of NZC's own making. The unpalatable truth is that they've effectively forced him to look elsewhere.

I watched, admittedly startled, about seven years ago when Vincent scored 104 and 54 on debut against Australia at Perth - at the time the first test century on debut from a visiting batsman in Australia since the Nawab of Pataudi struck 102 in the second test of the Bodyline series in 1932-33.

So composed was his batsmanship, so accurate his execution, it was hard to imagine what could possibly stop him from becoming one of New Zealand's best top-order batsman.

Unfortunately, I've received my answer.


Sunday Star Times