Reason: Benji Marshall, Black Caps dare to dream

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 05/02/2014
Benji Marshall
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GOOD HIT OUT: Benji Marshall was pleased enough with his performance against the Hurricanes.

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OPINION: Hold on, hold on, hold on.

The country has been on the party pills again. One day New Zealand's sporting landscape is a gloomy canvas of brown and beige. The next day it is an arcadian field where the sunshine seems to grow out of the ground, Benji Marshall plays the pan pipes and great cricketers walk out of cigarette cards and onto the village green. In the corner of the scene there's even a Phoenix rising out of the ashes of some old bails.

The world, not just New Zealand, loves a Benji Marshall. He let's us imagine. The Ellas and Marshalls of this world (sorry, not you Justin) play sport in a way that is almost mystical. They actually touch the places that we dream of.

So we turned up in our thousands to see Marshall play in Masterton on Saturday. We held our breath as the announcer turned up the guff to maximum volume. The sun was on full beam after some early morning cloud. Then this bloke ran out who was a bit heavy about the hip like a golfer from the 60s. No sooner was he on the pitch than he was reaching for the water bottle, dry-mouthed behind the designer stubble.

This was Benji Marshall. Hmm. Graham Henry said that Marshall had been out of condition in November but had worked hard. He needs to work harder.

But genius is genius. Once the whistle went...

We were watching an out of shape man with feet of clay. Marshall produced those trademark stutter steps but where was the blazing acceleration to take him into the gap. He stood too deep. His instinct was to run sideways. The timing of his pass was frequently off and went behind the man.

Ardie Savea knocked him backwards in the tackle. 'Go Savea Boys' urged the sign in front of the stand. Marshall tussled with a tighthead prop. He then tried to choke tackle James Broadhurst and was carried 10 metres backwards. At halftime he sat on the bench with his foot in a medical support.

If you didn't know your history, you would have said it was the opposite 10 Marty Banks who was the conjuror. Banks might look like a fence paling, but he is mighty fast over the ground and he plays up in the smoke.

But we do know our history. Marshall had the goose step and the stutter step. He was savagely fast off the mark. And he was the master of misdirection. There is one passage of play from his pomp when Marshall chipped and gathered, showed the ball to the defence and then streaked away, looked to the left and then passed behind his back the other way.

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Marshall made dreams come true. But now you wonder if he is just a dream. Graham Henry and John Kirwan are both romantics. One of Henry's heroes is Bev Risman, a second five who went from union to league. Is Henry reversing the connection, trying to go back to the future?

Kirwan said after the game, "He showed enough today to have another crack at it and he certainly put his hand up today, so we'll put him out there again next week and we'll just keep working on him. I thought it was a good start."

Teachers don't like to discourage willing pupils. The idea is that Marshall can play like Quade Cooper. He has the step, he once had the acceleration, and he has the range of pass. The Blues even protected Marshall with a guardian flanker at defensive lineouts.

In August Kirwan was "leaning towards 15" for Marshall. Now he's leaning towards 10. Hopefully he doesn't lean too far and topple over.

We can admire Marshall for trying but let's temper our expectations. I suggested a few weeks ago that the Black Caps could be realistic contenders for next year's World Cup, but they won't be if everyone thinks a few one-day wins against India is the evidence of the second coming.

This is not the Indian side that won the 2011 World Cup. It is not even close. Only MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina remain from the team that beat Sri Lanka. The top three in 2011 was Sehwag, Tendulkar and Gambhir. The bowlers were Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Khan, Patel and Sreesanth. There is a world of difference between the two Indian teams.

Kohli and Dhoni are class, Jadeja and Ashwin can bowl and the rest of the current team may or not make it in international cricket. India recently played three one-day internationals in South Africa. One was abandoned, and the other two were won by the home side by 134 and 141 runs.

When an England team in decline toured India, after a traditionally poor first innings, they averaged over 400 in their next seven test innings. This Indian team is short of bowlers and it is short of top order batsmen. That's not a good combination.

Well done the Black Caps for putting them away. Ross Taylor is becoming one of the finest batsmen in the world having refined his game with Martin Crowe. Kane Williamson is seeing some rewards for all his hard work and willingness to be educated. A good young bowling attack is listening to Shane Bond.

It is a start and a good start, but that is all it is. The Black Caps have knocked over the worst West Indies team of all time and beaten an Indian one-day team in sharp decline, both series at home. Like Benji Marshall, they can dream of what might be, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. False expectations can soon turn to unfair resentment.

- Fairfax Media

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