Black Caps, a history of failure
The major problem with New Zealand cricket is that the Black Caps are not an elite sports team.
The criteria for identifying an elite sports team is that it must be successful, meaning there is an acknowledged history of winning, a legacy of domination.
If we use the All Blacks as the benchmark, we see that the expectation of the public and everyone associated with the team is that it will be highly successful. Such success means maintaining uncompromising attitudes and standards. Mediocrity is not permitted.
Every All Black knows and accepts this. Losing causes an angry reaction; a sequence of losses will spell the end of an All Black coach and some of his team. Failure is not tolerated, so exceptional standards are maintained. Elite sports teams have this advantage over other teams.
With the Black Caps, the expectations are low because the team is seen as unsuccessful. Without a culture and history of success, there is no great momentum to achieve better results. There is a "we are beaten before we start" mentality. A run of losses often has no repercussions for the team.
Although the team has, at times, included elite and highly professional players who strived to be the world's best, this has not translated in to the Black Caps becoming an elite team. The overall history of the team has been one of failure, with unwanted milestones such as the world record lowest test score and the world record for most tests played before a win.
It is very difficult for New Zealand cricket to transcend the Black Caps' history, as once the mindset has been adopted that the team is only capable of an occasional good performance, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
New Zealand cricket in the 70s and 80s was a time of excitement. New Zealand started to play regular test series against Australia and regularly crossed the Tasman to compete in the World Series one-day tournament, and always gave a good account of themselves.
At home, New Zealand humbled the mighty West Indies and went undefeated in series after series. Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe established a new ideal of what a New Zealand player could be. This era was the best chance for the Black Caps to establish an elite culture. But the foundations were shallow. The 90s and the new millenium have seen an erosion of expectations going hand in hand with a slump to the lowest echelons of the international rankings.
Low expectations have had many consequences, not least of which is a wrong-headed and confused approach to selections, tactics and overall strategies. Ian Chappell is fond of saying that in cricket you should always be doing what your opponent doesn't want you to do. This is true and relates to the fact that in cricket, you constantly need to maintain the upper hand through the relentless application of pressure.
This is true not only of what you are doing on the field, but also in what you are doing with your selections. Too often New Zealand cricket has been loathe to play a leg spinner, or back a younger player, or play a raw fast bowler, for fear that the move may backfire. In New Zealand cricket, where test victories have become increasingly rare, it could be argued that there is actually nothing to lose in taking the risk of a bold selection.
Recently Todd Astle was brought in to the test team for the final test against Sri Lanka, where he took part in a vital stand with Ross Taylor and made a critical breakthrough when bowling in the second innings. Thereafter he was dropped from the side and the established option of Jeetan Patel was returned to the side. Patel's test career has been very ordinary, but he is seen as the safe option.
Although the new captain Brendon McCullum is trumpeted as being very aggressive, I would argue that aggression in itself is not the key to success. Aggression must play second fiddle to the clever application of tactics and strategies.
What is required in the absence of a winning culture is a very clear vision on the way forward and strong leadership from above. Somehow the team needs to be liberated from its history of failure to ensure better results, as the team from the 80s showed is possible.
New Zealand cricket should look to replicate the environment that elite teams exist in, meaning an adherence to the best possible standards and attitudes, and a recognition that failure will be met with changes.
The acceptance of a legacy of failure means that New Zealand cricket is currently floundering, and it seems likely to remain in the doldrums unless it finds a harder edge.