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Returning grit to the 'Slack' Caps

JEFF BAHMER
Last updated 14:30 28/11/2012
Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor
DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/ Reuters

Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor offer some fighting spirit in Colombo, each scoring a century this week against Sri Lanka.

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*Article written prior to the start of the second Sri Lanka test.

007. NZ requiring 347 for a rare series victory over Australia. Nine down, scores are level, the country pauses.

"He's got it through for four, Brendon McCullum and New Zealand have done it again! Can you believe it?! Yes they can now, they are a bunch of believers, they can win it from anywhere!"

Remember this? Remember when schoolboys would wag final two periods to catch Shane Bond's fiery opening spell?

When businessmen would pretend to be on conference call while following a ball-by-ball barrage by Cairns on Cricinfo? When the Black Caps played with self belief, confidence, pride, ruthlessness and a nation of adoring fans behind them.

It's been five long years since the Black Caps' sensational whitewash of Australia in the Chappell-Hadlee series and Ian Smith was not alone in believing New Zealand was entering a special era of cricket.

The dramatic fall from grace, epitomised by the woeful recent tour of Sri Lanka, has since seen New Zealand suffer a humiliating descent down the ICC rankings to a miserable 8th in all forms of the game, suffer degrading series whitewashes to Bangladesh and the West Indies, and are about two test losses away from officially adopting the tag of "minnows" in the cricketing world. That's right, the once proud cricketing nation that has produced legends of the game John Reid, Bruce Edgar, Sir Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe, Mark Greatbach, Stephen Fleming are now the easy beats of test cricket, and it's becoming more apparent the fingernails of Black Caps' fans await yet another agonising summer.

So what's gone wrong? Who is to blame? Do we simply no longer have the talent to compete with the super powers?

Codswallop! Essentially the state of New Zealand cricket can be attributed to several components - The influence of T20 cricket and the financial hold certain Indian competitions have on the global game, the uncertainty of roles within the side evident with consistent coaching and personnel changes, a lack of aptitude and nouse at the crease, leadership rifts and a lack of team cohesion. But ultimately a LACK OF RUNS!

The once comical farce that was T20 cricket has now become an international phenomenon, crowd favourite, and a multi-million dollar entity.

The game has already begun to usurp its limited over rival One Day Internationals in popularity and has been dubbed by many as the future of the game.

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The annual Indian Premier League draws players from all corners, packs stadiums to the rafters and more alarmingly has taken a huge incentive away from players to play for their countries.

The paychecks these top players, including Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum, are earning for six weeks work are big enough to get a man thinking if it's worth hanging up his national cap altogether.

Perhaps since T20 has corrupted the minds of our players a performance based incentive programme is the only way to motivate them?

When England arrive on our shores this summer the hosts should have a settled T20 lineup with some World Cup experience, fizzing after a highly competitive HRV Cup.

Ready to reclaim their spot back in the top two teams in the world. Right? Wishful thinking.

The Black Caps remain one of the only sides in the world yet to fully adapt to the newest format and appear to have little clue which squad members are best suited for the 20 over game.

David Warner has built his career on his explosive ability at T20 level and yet has transformed that aggression into becoming one of the finest test batsman on the current scene.

The West Indies have risen form the ashes to claim the T20 World Cup in 2012 with powerhouses such as Dwayne smith and Keiron Pollard, both of which have been regarded as limited overs specialists making way in the test side for the low striking occupiers of the crease Chanderpaul and Powell.

The West Indies have been terrific exponents of playing to their strengths and making intelligent selections according to which code they are playing.

Bangladesh, led by inspirational Captain Shakib Al Hasaan, have systematically earnt their right to be called contenders in World Cricket with Hasaan's leadership across all formats.

Meanwhile in New Zealand? The Black Caps management are like monkeys playing jenga when it comes to their team selections.

Pegged as a side with the potential to excel in this format. With feared batsman such as Taylor, McCullum and Ryder in their arsenal, many saw them as a real threat. However in typical NZ fashion they have failed to fulfill that potential.

The inability to switch batting mode depending on the code is a major achilles for the team. Since T20s inception the Black Caps have lost 30 of the 59 T20 internationals they have played.

Test cricket is still regarded as the purist form of the game, followed by only the dire cricketing fans. The history, prestige and tradition that encapsulates the test game will ensure its future for generations.

The Black Caps in recent times have capitulated in more second innings batting collapses than Mark Richardson has made television appearances.

In 2012 New Zealand have scored only three test centuries excluding against Zimbabwe. Have not posted one total of 500 and above, and perhaps most importantly have not had a victory of note since the triumph in Hobart nearly 12 months ago.

Meanwhile Michael Clarke has posted four double centuries in a calendar year, Alistair Cook has scored centuries in all three of his first tests as captain, Chanderpaul's averaging 98 and international test centuries are as ubiquitous as Christchurch earthquakes.

So the run drought can certainly not be attributed to bowler friendly pitches, world class bowling, bigger grounds or whatever ridiculous excuse the blind Black Cap supporter can conjure up.

The top six appear to have two gears in test cricket. All out mindless attack, or closed shop defence. The class and temperament on display in the recent century innings' from Hashim Amla, Chestawa Pujara and Marlon Samuels illustrates the gap emerging between the best batsmen in the world and the Black Caps top six.

The mindset of these three players is obvious. The three Ps.

Patience - if it's too good for me i will leave it. I have time to bat.

Persistence - play to my strengths, the right ball will come. I don't need to improvise, or be forced into a false stroke. Tick over the runs, frustrate the field.

Punish- never miss out on a bad ball, put it away. Along the carpet. Minimize risk.

If the Black Caps could absorb just a fraction of the lessons these players dish out it will go a long way to righting the wrongs of NZ cricket.

Williamson's role in the side has been constantly tinkered with by management, scrutinized by the media and hindered personal performance in the young batsman.

From the outset a Richardson heir looked to have been found. Patient, solid defence, and mature beyond his years.

The Black Caps found what they had been yearning for in the wake of mass departures from their batting stocks.

What more could they ask for?

A player who values his wicket and can be consistently relied upon for runs albeit not particularly flashy runs.

The influence of T20 has seen sides become fixated on strike rates and stroke making risk taking batsmen.

Not fitting this mould Williamson has consequently struggled to maintain his place in the limited overs side and his test batting performance has suffered as a result.

The great sides of recent times such as the 2011 English side, the 2008-2010 Indians, or that incomparable Australian team from the early 2000s conquered the world with a very simple formula. Score big runs, take 20 wickets.

Made all the more easier with a settled side, that bowled in tandem, put pressure on in the field and had a brilliant batting lineup set in stone.

Williamson needs to be recognised as a specialist test number three and middle order batsman in ODI.

There is enough power in our lineup to accomodate for a more conservative style as the proteas have shown with Jaques Kallis and Amla.

Leave Williamson out of the T20 side altogether to make way for a designated slogger such as Keiren Noema-Barnett or Colin Degrandhomme.

The Kiwis need to treat the different formats as different sports requiring a unique skill set for each.

Blockbusting stroke makers like Shaid Afridi rarely are able to maintain that tempo in the test arena.

There are three players in world cricket that possess this capability. Virinder Sehwag, Chris Gayle and Jesse Ryder.

Jesse already has two test double centuries to his name and in the minds of many Black Caps supporters will be the saviour of NZ cricket upon his inevitable return.

While Ryder will add some much needed substance to NZ's ever fragile middle order there is a lot more required before the English series if they are to turn their miserable fortunes in test cricket around.

Renowned for their tenacity, heart and fighting spirit, the longtime overachievers are playing with the self confidence of the obese kid at swimming sports. The culture of the side has changed significantly, evident in the body language of the players.

How often does Ross Taylor appear assured of himself regarding his tactics, bowling selections and field placements?

How often does Jimmy Franklin stride tall to the middle with an appetite for runs?

When do we see constructive, controlled aggression in the form of well directed bouncers, intimidating chat and a fierce run up from Dougie Bracewell?

The current side can rule out a post cricket career in high stakes poker.

Where has this self doubt been bred? Scott Styris, Craig Mcmillian, Lou Vincent, Nathan Astle certainly never lacked confidence. These players were part of that special side that won six ODI series on the trot between 2006 and 07 and genuinely felt they could chase any score of 300+.

Those days seem a generation ago now and the finger pointing, teeth grinding and losing has become tiring for all concerned.

Solutions? The board could go all out to accommodate a premier batting coach with proven merit such as Martin Crowe.

They could select Jesse Ryder even if he's pounding a bottle of vodka a day.

They could drop all underperforming players to domestic cricket and recall the likes of Matthew Sinclair. They could adopt a pay system of no runs no funds.

However, the ultimate issue lies within the players themselves. Cricket is a psychologically torturous sport, one which requires uncompromising mental toughness. A trait sorely lacking in the Black Caps today.


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