Why such a sticky wicket for the NZ cricket team?

OUT OF LEFT FIELD

ROSS HENDERSON
Last updated 07:25 19/01/2013

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How do we explain the terrible performance of our men's national test cricket team in South Africa these last few weeks?

Is it just a freak under- performance by the team and its management, or is there some other factor behind what's been happening in our main summer code?

Maybe I look back too dewy- eyed at New Zealand cricket's heyday of players such as Richard Hadlee and Lance Cairns, but I can't recall a national first XI that achieved an opening innings of 45 runs, then 121 runs, in two successive tests - the first in fewer balls than are bowled in a Twenty20 game.

The immediate attention has gone on the events before Christmas. There was the messy dismissal of previous captain Ross Taylor in the middle of the Sri Lanka tour.

The new coach, Mike Hesson, and new captain, Brendon McCullum, were determined to lead the team with new confidence and put what was described by some as old tensions and divisions behind them. The symbol of leadership from the front was McCullum, previously a middle- order batsman, opening the batting.

It was a disaster and must have rattled the troops.

Many of us will have had the experience of new management coming into our workplace, claiming to know various problems exist, then setting about making changes only to wreck good systems and good relationships, and ultimately the business.

I've seen it plenty of times in workplaces I've been involved with and I wonder whether that's the problem with the Black Caps.

A lot has changed since the glory days of 30 or 40 years ago. I don't believe "professionalising" the top end of the game means our players today have any less passion than their forebears did, but techniques and technology have changed the game worldwide, and I wonder whether we are keeping up.

All top international cricket teams have been developing pace bowlers, so facing a bowler like Dale Steyn shouldn't come as any surprise. But our boys seemed to be freaked out by him.

Some of the post-Protea commentary has dealt with who else might be brought in to improve our competitiveness. Obviously there is talk of Taylor returning. Jesse Ryder rates a mention. He is hugely talented with bat and ball, but he has been taking time out to deal to his demons, and who knows whether he is ready yet?

Not many other names are raised. And this might reflect part of the wider problem. What is happening to the depth of talent in New Zealand cricket? Is it just that as a country of 4 million we should no longer expect to compete with the talent pools of countries of 20 million and more?

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When I took a few days down the south of the region around my old stamping ground this summer, I noticed for the first time how few youngsters there were in public parks whacking a ball around. I'm not sure I even saw that much beach cricket in the few days I spent at the beach motorcamp.

Sure, getting around on a Saturday, there seems to be plenty of club cricket going on, but how many have the spirit and determination to play at the top level?

There might be something of a chicken- and-egg thing going on here. Is it the failure of our top team to perform that means few are inspired to join the code and play at the most senior level?

You can see what happens when our national representatives do well by looking at rowing. Recent reports are there now aren't enough boats and coaches to meet the demand from young people wanting to join.

Or is the issue that we just haven't produced enough strength in our younger ranks to deliver enough talent for a world- class team?

Or is it deeper changes in our society? Working life and family habits have changed a lot over the past 20 years. More parents are working longer hours to fund a household. And, typically, both parents are working now.

Fewer working adults have the time to put in to their own sport. And they have even less time to put into their kids' activities outside the home. Throw into the mix the rapid uptake of computer games and other sedentary activities and it's no wonder we are starting to score poorly in health surveys.

Then you look at the sports that are attracting large numbers. It's ironman contests, the Coast-to-Coast and cycling events such as Round the Lake in Taupo. We do well in golf. All these are sports of individual achievement.

I hope, for the sake of our national character, the Black Caps can lift their game.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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