It is difficult not to like New Zealand. Nature has been extremely kind to it; the people respect that and as a result, it has remained an extraordinarily beautiful land. You really do want to visit it once, if not more frequently. But there isn’t a lot going for their cricket. There is a lot of space and a lot of grounds, but just not enough people. It translates not just into a shortage of players but, as relevant to the times, a rather tinier cricket industry.
Napier, where India play the first one-day international, is a beautiful town that is home to a mere 57,600 people. That won’t fill the Eden Gardens even with its reduced seating! Gorgeous Dunedin has 126,000 people and as you drive past the Bombay Hills from Auckland to Hamilton you enter a city of 1,45,700. With those numbers (and I realise Auckland and Wellington are significantly bigger!), and the fact that rugby and the all-blacks dominate all sport, there isn’t a lot in the cricket economy. The annual contracts offered to their best cricketers are a fraction of what they can earn in the IPL for example.
It means if you are not among the very best cricketers, occasionally even if you are, you will need a second profession to keep you going once you have finished with the game. Purely from a cricketing point of view, given the number of professional players, the standard of cricket isn’t going to be the highest. The example of Barbados might weaken this argument, but see how they have tapered off so dramatically! And so I was very interested to hear Stephen Fleming talk about New Zealand cricketers learning very early to make the most of what they have. From the development of a player that is not always the worst situation to be in because you are almost forced to become the best player you can be. I find that quality in cricketers admirable and I saw that as New Zealand battled to the semi-final of the World Cup in conditions very different from their own.
But now they have a very decent crop of cricketers coming up. It is a nice confluence of talent when the likes of Martin Guptill, Jesse Ryder, Hamish Rutherford, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Trent Boult, Tim Southee play together. Get into the one-day game and you can add Corey Anderson and James Neesham. But you look at the top six batsmen and think they should be winning more games for New Zealand. Every time I see Guptill bat, I think I am watching a special player but he averages 29.6 in Test cricket from 31 Tests. Kane Williamson is a fine player and is stuck at 35.2 after 29 Tests. McCullum hasn’t hit 40 and the hugely gifted Ryder is just about there. Even Ross Taylor, whose recent form has seen his average surge to 47.51, hasn’t really become the player he was destined to be. It suggests to me that players might be doing their best to reach a certain level but seem incapable of taking their game to the next plane.
In the 83 years that New Zealand have been playing international cricket, you could count two, maybe three, among the greats. Richard Hadlee, Martin Crowe and maybe Glenn Turner. In recent times, Fleming himself only just went past an average of 40 in Tests after 111 appearances and Chris Cairns, often dogged by injury, managed 33 with the bat and 29 with the ball.
It is a peculiar situation. It either means that the players are inherently not good enough, which is untrue with the names I have taken, or that they plateau too quickly in life or, maybe, that they don’t play tough enough cricket to be forced to raise their game to the level it is capable of. There is some truth to that because in limited overs cricket, where you need to flaunt your ability for much shorter periods, they seem far more dangerous and I won’t be surprised if they present a significant challenge at both the T20 World Championship in a couple of months and the World Cup in 2015.
Given where Test cricket is headed and the dangerous prediction of a two tier system, I am not sure we will see a huge change in New Zealand’s fortunes there but I think they could be the team to watch in the shorter forms of the game. If this group of players continues to do itself injustice, the fans will have a right to be very disappointed.