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By Bharath Ramaraj
Ever since the retirement of the legendary Martin Crowe, New Zealand have been hard-pressed to find world-class batsmen. On numerous occasions, New Zealand’s batting line-up has capitulated like a pack of cards, resulting in heavy losses. Recently, against a hostile South African pace attack, New Zealand’s batsmen constantly floundered, and invariably found themselves in dire straits.
When we consider New Zealand as a country, we have to understand that they will always struggle to churn out world-class cricketers day in and day out. A statistical count tells us, there are 11 sheep for every person in New Zealand, which means, there are approximately about 44 million sheep to 4.1 million people. It also has to be said that most of those 4.1 million people are hooked to another sport called rugby.
In-spite of severe limitations faced by New Zealand, there is an inkling feeling that by pursuing a haphazard selection policy, the selectors have done more harm than good. A slew of young batsmen have come in and disappeared into oblivion. The likes of Mathew Sinclair, Jamie How, Lou Vincent and Hamish Marshall showed flashes of brilliance, but just weren’t able to make it big at the international level.
In fact, Sinclair arrived on the Test scene with a bang, as he made a swashbuckling double hundred against the West Indies in his debut test in ’99-00. He followed up that double hundred with a valiant century in a losing cause against the mighty South Africans at Port Elizabeth, during the 2000-01 season. The opposition attack boasted of names like Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini in their ranks. Sinclair continued to churn out big scores as he made a doubled century at home against Pakistan at Christchurch. It was a significant moment in Sinclair’s career, as after a succession of low scores, the selectors were ready to wield their axe, and drop him from the Test side.
Sinclair soon became a victim of New Zealand’s bizarre revolving-door policy. He was virtually on a perpetual trial. Sinclair was dropped from the team after not doing well in Australia and at home in 2001-02. Those were the days when the Australians were known as invincibles. So, it wasn’t a major surprise that ‘Skippy’ flopped miserably Down Under.
In 2003-04, during one of Sinclair’s comeback Tests, he made a well-measured 74 against South Africa. The gritty knock didn’t help him to be picked for the tour to the Old Blighty. He must have been crestfallen, as despite doing well, he wasn’t selected. Sinclair even tried his hand at opening the batting in 2004-05 in Bangladesh and in Australia, respectively. But as he wasn’t a regular opener, he struggled to make that chance count. The last time we saw Sinclair playing for New Zealand was in 2009-10 against Australia. He seemed like a cricketer full of nerves and jittery thoughts. No wonder, after failing in just one Test against Australia, he was dropped for the umpteenth time. A Test batting average of 32.05 doesn’t do justice to his potential. Even now, Sinclair continues to serve his First-Class team, the Central Districts, with dedication and devotion.
More than a decade ago, on a typical trampoline wicket at WACA, Lou Vincent made the entire cricketing world to sit up and take notice of his batting talents with a brilliant hundred against Australia. In 2003-04, Vincent also made a gutsy hundred on the turning tracks of India. Since then, it was a case of never ending barren patch for Vincent. Constant chopping and changing didn’t help his cause either.
When Vincent announced his retirement this year, his Test average of 34.15 didn’t make for a good reading. Vincent’s sparkling century at the WACA in 2001-02 even made the hard-nosed former Australian captain, Ian Chappell, shower praises on him. Unfortunately, a combination of revolving-door policies, and maybe Vincent’s lack of Test match temperament, meant that he lost the plot.
Jamie How made his Test debut back in 2006 against the Windies. But it was in 2007-08, when he stamped his class in the international arena with a classy 92 against England at home. New Zealand went onto beat England in that Test match. During that time, How also made an enterprising hundred in a high-scoring one-day game against England at Napier in New Zealand.
On a tour to England in 2008, How made an encouraging start by doing well in testing conditions at Lord’s and Old Trafford, respectively. After a string of low scores though, How was finally dropped in 2009. Since then, he hasn’t donned the black cap for New Zealand.
Hamish Marshall, the stylish middle-order batsman from Warkworth had a promising start to his Test career. In just his second Test, he stood up-to the might of all-conquering Australians, by making a hundred. He also played an eye-catching knock of 160 against the touring Sri Lankans at Napier in 2005.
After a frustrating time at the 2007 World Cup, Marshall got disillusioned with the system. In search of greener pastures, he turned down a central contract for the 2007-08 season, and joined Gloucestershire. A Test batting average of 38.45 suggests he could have done well for New Zealand.
New Zealand’s growing list of under-performing batsmen also includes names like Shane Thompson, Bryan Young, Blair Hartland, Craig Cumming, Matthew Bell, Michael Papps, Gary Stead, Craig Spearman, James Marshall, Aaron Redmond, Peter Ingram, Tim McIntosh, Neil Broom, Peter Fulton, Daniel Flynn and Martin Guptill. It is sad, but true, that since the retirement of Martin Crowe, only Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan, Mark Richardson, Stephen Fleming and Ross Taylor have bucked the trend of sustained under-performance and done well.
Recently, Crowe was vociferous and unsparing in his criticism of New Zealand’s cricket academy, as he believed, they were partly responsible for such sustained under-performance by the batsmen. Crowe said, “Biomechanics became the new buzzword for New Zealand’s finest batting talent. The theory passed on was that hand speed and power efficiency through the shot was everything. Out the window went footwork, body position, soft hands and hitting the ball late below the eyes. In came heavier bats, high backlifts, minimal footwork and going hard at the ball.”
He added, “The net result was faster strike rates and shorter stays at the crease. For a whole decade this theory was passed down to the next line of coaches, and from them to young players, who were too frightened to disregard the instructions thrust at them.”
As a keen cricket enthusiast, I do believe a combination of factors that includes bad coaching and revolving-door policies have hurt the prospects of New Zealand’s cricket in the last decade. For the Test series against England, New Zealand’s selectors have picked the “two-metre” Fulton. Going by how New Zealand’s selectors operate, one can safely say that they will drop Fulton after one bad game. As a cricket fan, it is frustrating to see New Zealand adopt an ad-hoc approach to selection.
The Test series against England can be a stern test for New Zealand’s batsmen. The likes of James Anderson and Steven Finn will explore every nook and cranny of their batsmen’s defence. From New Zealand’s perspective, it is high time that selectors give everyone a decent run in the side. If a cricketer is assured of a fair run in the side, he can concentrate on his job better — something New Zealand’s cricket board ought to learn as early as possible.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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