Cricket,the Kiwi way

The sport may struggle to win a popularity contest in rugby-dominated New Zealand,but one of the greatest sporting legends...

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Published: February 22, 2009 10:40 pm

The sport may struggle to win a popularity contest in rugby-dominated New Zealand,but one of the greatest sporting legends in the land did emanate from a cricket Test played in Johannesburg in 1953. It was Boxing Day and South Africa were in a commanding position when left-hander Bert Sutcliffe,batting with a bandaged head,was joined unexpectedly by last man Bob Blair,who had lost his fiancée in a train disaster two days earlier. The pair hung around valiantly for 10 minutes,and though the Kiwis went on to lose the match,it was described as a story that every New Zealand boy should learn at his mother’s knee.

But despite having provided the sport with such spectacles,and superstars such as Sutcliffe,Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe,the Kiwis have always ended up promising much but delivering little on the world stage. Though not flightless like the country’s national symbol,Kiwi cricket has been more like a pelican skimming over the water — neither touching the surface nor threatening to soar.

Apart from always being front-runners in cricket-related fashion contests with their good looks and fancy outfits,they enter every major competition as the perennial dark horses. But despite reaching the semi-final stage in four World Cups,the 2000 ICC Knock-out Trophy,which they won by beating an in-form India in the final in Nairobi,remains the only major prize they can boast of.

New Zealand became the fifth entrant into Test cricket when they faced England at home in a four-match series in 1930,but it took them 26 years and 45 matches to register their first win against the West Indies in Auckland. It wasn’t until the inception of ODI cricket that they really started to make an impact on the world stage. And most New Zealand teams,including the present lot under the leadership of left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori,have looked more at peace in their ODI costumes,be it beige,grey or black,rather than in whites. New Zealand have played fewer Tests — 348 till date,compared to India’s 427.

Former Indian batsman Pravin Amre,who went on three New Zealand trips during his career,believes that the Kiwis are much better suited to play the limited-overs formats. “They generally tend to have a number of utility players and,apart from Crowe or Hadlee,they’ve rarely had any stars. They have always lacked the specialists required to do well in Tests,” he says. But the Mumbai coach adds that the rise of Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor is finally giving them some players with flair.

Though defining a quintessential Kiwi cricketer may not be easy,a common pattern emerges by looking at their line-ups over the last few decades. Right from the time of Glenn Turner,New Zealand have always employed a dogged opener up-front,especially in Tests. And while John Wright,Bryan Young and Mark Richardson filled up that coveted spot admirably during their tenures,even current incumbents Aaron Redmond and Tim McIntosh are known more for their tenacity than their stroke-making abilities.

In addition to Crowe,New Zealand have also always churned out a number of attractive middle-order batsmen like Nathan Astle and former captain Stephen Fleming,and it is now left to McCullum and Taylor to fill their illustrious shoes. Match-winning bowlers,though,have been a rarity in New Zealand cricket,and apart from the amazing feats of Hadlee,only Chris Cairns and Vettori have managed more than 200 scalps in Tests. The more successful bowlers in the interim have been the unique dibbly-dobbly medium-pacers that the Kiwis have always had in plenty. The innocuous sorts — Bevan Congdon and Jeremy Coney in the 80s or Gavin Larsen and Chris Harris in the 90s — have always proved to be a major part of Kiwi cricket.

The lack of impact created by prodigiously talented cricketers such as Cairns,Craig McMillan and Lou Vincent has been one of the most disappointing aspects of their cricket.

“But one thing they have mastered and have always been good at is their fielding and their athleticism on the field,” says Bishen Singh Bedi,who was part of the last Indian team to have won a series in New Zealand and coached the team who toured in 1989.

Though perceived as extremely friendly off the field,the Kiwis have also been notorious for their aggression on the field,and even Shane Warne considers former wicketkeeper Adam Parore as one of the worst sledgers he ever encountered. Hrishikesh Kanitkar,who was part of the ’98 squad,reveals that the crowd is also very vociferous and the fielders at the boundary line are always at the receiving end.

“They have an extraordinarily aggressive approach to their game,especially in ODI cricket,” he says.

New Zealand have been at the forefront of new innovations in limited-overs cricket,and it was during the 1992 World Cup that the world watched in awe as Crowe opened the bowling with off-spinner Dipak Patel and then employed Mark Greatbatch as a pinch-hitter at the top of the order. Lee Germon was thrust into the captaincy role on his debut in 1995,and while Twenty20 may have captured the world of cricket like a storm now,there was a time when Max Cricket,which was invented in New Zealand (India played a Max international on their last tour),was considered an interesting prospect before it faded away.

Kanitkar summarises a contest against New Zealand perfectly when he says,“From the moment you step onto the field,you are aware that you are in for a fight.”

Know your Black Caps: Small names that might have a big impact over the next few weeks

Tim Southee

• He is barely four Tests and 20 ODIs old in international cricket,but 20-year-old Tim Southee is already facing the kind of pressure that not many New Zealand cricketers have handled too well in the past.

Billed as the next big thing from the time he made his first-class debut at the age of 18 for Northern Districts,the all-rounder will have to ensure that he lives up to the expectations.

Southee did start off with a huge bang,as he took the wickets of Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss in his second and third over in international cricket,before adding Kevin Pietersen to the list. He ended with figures of 5/55 in his debut performance against England in Napier last year. He then brought his hard-hitting prowess with the bat to the fore with a 40-ball 77,which included a staggering nine sixes,even though New Zealand ended up on the losing side.

The youngster can generate good pace and bounce off the wicket and even troubled the Australians during his team’s tour late last year. Southee will be a difficult force to reckon with,especially in New Zealand conditions.

Iain O’Brien

• There is a certain spunk about Iain O’Brien,which not only comes out through his blogs or tour diaries,but is also very evident on the field each time he runs in with the ball. The tall 32-year-old fast bowler with sharp Irish features had to wait a long time before getting his break in international cricket,and once he got there,he didn’t quite seem to fit. O’Brien looked pedestrian against the visiting Australian batsmen,and was soon discarded back into the domestic scene. But injuries to Chris Martin and Kyle Mills brought him back into the frame,and he has since made a terrific comeback to the New Zealand team,becoming one of the more established members in the side.

O’Brien hustles to the bowling crease and despite not being too pacy,can produce movement on and off the pitch. He also manages to generate good bounce off the wicket,and will be a handful in the helpful conditions at home. He picked up his first five-wicket haul — a brilliant 6/75 against the touring West Indians in Napier late last year — and after being considered something of a Test-match specialist,has now also become an important member of the limited-overs side.

Jesse Ryder

• Rotund,arrogant and party-boy are the adjectives that have unfortunately dominated most things about Jesse Ryder in his brief international career so far. The 24-year-old left-handed opener’s wild side has been so well documented that his brilliant hard-hitting abilities with the bat and useful medium-pace often get overlooked.

Big-built and powerful,Ryder packs a punch in his shots,and can be very destructive on his day. Despite repeated disciplinary blunders,the Kiwi selectors have continued to persist with him. He did manage to repay their faith last year,when he smashed 196 runs at an impressive average of 49 in the ODI series against England at home,before yet another drunken spat put him out of action.

Ryder then returned and made his Test debut and,since then,has managed to keep himself under check. He has an average of almost 50 in his first six Tests so far,having already scored four half-centuries. Ryder,who was signed up by the Bangalore Royal Challengers for the second edition of the IPL,also doubles up as a nagging,typical Kiwi-style medium-pacer,and got through the defences of Michael Clarke in Brisbane when the Australian required just two runs for a century.

Grant Elliott

• It is not new for a South Africa-based cricketer to earn his laurels in a far-away land. But despite hailing from Johannesburg and having played for provincial sides Gauteng and Transvaal,29-year-old Grant Elliott’s facets as a cricketer are as Kiwi as they come. He is a gritty batsman lower down the order who can raise the tempo of the innings when required,and a medium-pace bowler in the Gavin Larsen-Willie Watson mould,who keeps it tight in the middle-overs.

And not surprisingly,Elliott has found more success in the shorter version of the game and is still to make an impact in the Tests. After coming into the side in place of an injured Jacob Oram,the lanky Elliott struggled to fit into the big man’s shoes. But he seemed to settle into the team fabric after a successful ODI tour of England,where he was involved in the controversial run-out incident which resulted in then English captain Paul Collingwood being banned for a game. But his real rise to fame came recently in the ODI series against Australia,where he orchestrated a terrific run-chase at the MCG before scoring his maiden century. Elliott currently averages 59.50 with a bat and 20.81 with the ball in ODI cricket.

Martin Guptill

• There have been a number of cricketers in the history of cricket who have played at the highest level with minor physical disabilities and have been very successful. And before getting into his credentials,just how 22-year-old Martin Guptill,who has only two toes on one of his feet because of a forklift accident a few years back,manages to bat and score runs is difficult to fathom.

The tall and lanky young right-handed opener,though,seemed destined for big things from the time he impressed at the junior level,before topping the batting charts in the 2007-08 domestic season and earning a call-up to the national side. Guptill promptly strode out against the West Indies at Eden Park,Auckland,and smashed an unbeaten 122,the second-highest debut score in ODI cricket.

Though renowned as a grafter in first-class cricket,Guptill has already proven on the big stage his capability of playing shots against quality bowling and is very good square of the wicket. And his maniacal 34-ball unbeaten 64 against the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Bracken in Brisbane almost got the Kiwis home to a remarkable series win,before bad weather intervened.

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