The Black Caps must dare to dream if they’re to emerge from the darkness, writes Freddie Wilde.
The date is January 3, 2013. While a cricket-starved Pakistan are crushing India in an ODI match in Kolkata; 6,000 miles away in Cape Town, New Zealand are well on the way to a chastening Test defeat against South Africa, trailing by 302 runs after the first innings, having been bowled out for just 45 the previous day.
Although the formats are different Pakistan’s success and New Zealand’s struggles perhaps hold interesting lessons for the hapless Black Caps.
New Zealand have been a troubled team of late. Their 2012 was bookended by wins against Zimbabwe in January and Sri Lanka in November, but in between they lost more matches than they won in Tests and ODIs, sinking to eighth in the Test rankings as a result.
Their year ended with a management disaster when negotiations over the captaincy descended into farce and Ross Taylor, after a disagreement with the board and coach, departed as captain and subsequently declared himself unavailable for selection for the ongoing South Africa series.
Since the relative golden years of the 80s, the Black Caps have experienced 20 years of consistent but unspectacular results. Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, Chris Cairns, Shane Bond (all too briefly) and more recently Daniel Vettori have been a small few to stand out amongst two generations of cricketers who have struggled to make their mark on the biggest stage. Statistically, batting averages lurk in the high 30s or low 40s and bowling averages rarely break into the 20s. Matchwinners have been few and far between and that has been reflected in their results.
Amongst the current set-up the bludgeoning Brendon McCullum initially offered much promise but he has struggled to marry his attacking game with a defence to match when it comes to long form cricket. Moreover, having played in Twenty 20 leagues in four different countries it appears his focus on international cricket is not absolute, which makes his elevation to the captaincy in place of Taylor all the more baffling. Jesse Ryder too is a stirring cricketer of the kind the Kiwis are crying out for, but his well-documented problems have prevented him from making the most of his evident talent. And then of course there is Taylor; the best Kiwi cricketer of his generation, backed into a corner to such an extent that he is now watching from the sidelines as his team gets steamrollered by the world’s best Test side.
Pakistan, meanwhile, are a nation that appear to have an endless supply of talented and exciting cricketers. Brimming with thoroughbred quicks, inventive spinners and flashy strokemakers, their players have the X-factor that New Zealand’s do not. For cricketers in Pakistan, he who dares wins, and there are perhaps lessons that New Zealand can learn from the approach of players such as Nasir Jamshed.
Dedication, commitment and preparation are clearly prerequisites when it comes to playing international cricket but coaches, managers and players can at times become so submerged in this area of the game that natural instincts are curbed. Dietary requirements, sleep patterns, psychologists… maybe it’s time to just allow them a little bit of freedom. Get them out of the cocoon. Let them live. Let them play their natural game.
New Zealand have not been blessed with many exceptionally talented cricketers over the last 20 years – hardly surprising considering the small pool of players they have to choose from – and that has exaggerated the need to maximise resources and create multi-dimensional, ultra-professional cricketers. However, there is an argument to be made that this process has gone too far. Whilst enormous emphasis has been placed on high levels of fitness and quality fielding, the basic skills of batting and bowling have only been slowly improved and maintained, rendering talent unfulfilled. A psychology creating good but not exceptional cricketers has inadvertently created a glass ceiling above the sport in New Zealand.
Yet despite all the negativity, there is light at the end of the tunnel for McCullum’s team. In Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Doug Bracewell, New Zealand have a trio of young fast bowlers with enormous potential, while Kane Williamson is a classy operator and Dean Brownlie has shown plenty of bottle with the bat. The impact these players have could well be decided by how far their imaginations dare to go. They must strive for more than mediocrity and believe that they can establish themselves among the game’s elite.
Les Brown, an American motivational speaker, once said that people should “shoot for the moon, because even if they miss they will land among the stars”. It is this attitude that must find its way into New Zealand cricket if there is to be an improvement in their fortunes. Their cricketers must consider the impossible, possible, and dare to dream again.