Paul Ford of New Zealand supporters group the Beige Brigade looks back over a miserable few months for the Black Caps but insists there are reasons to be cheerful ahead of the Test series against England.
Back in 1991, England’s now batting coach Graham Gooch assessed his side’s chances against Australia in the Ashes as “a fart competing with thunder”. The same meteorological odour is emanating from England’s forthcoming Test series against New Zealand, only this time Thor is on the side of the men with the three lions on their badge.
There is very little for Kiwi fans to salivate over in terms of our team’s shambolic Test performances of late and their main emotions will be a combination of fear, foreboding and trepidation.
The Kiwi sporting environment is shaped by an oval ball and a black jersey. Rugby is all-important, and the world champion All Blacks’ hugely successful winning record has burdened many sports with unrealistic expectations for decades, including cricket. However, in the wake of recent events, those expectations have been eviscerated for the Black Caps – and not in a good way.
The current New Zealand team is a product of a Kiwi cricketing environment that is at the nadir of its fortunes: a depressing mix of injuries and unavailability, allegations of nepotism and half-truths, inexperienced players thrown in the deep end, a chorus of embittered former players, administrators and commentators whinging from behind the boundary rope, and a series of catastrophic public relations cock-ups.
Two recent episodes stand out as particularly galling. The first involved the extermination of Ross Taylor as captain, at the behest of greenhorn coach Mike Hesson, in a Sri Lankan motel room. In one of the worst examples of man management in recent history, inside or outside the sporting world, Taylor’s removal from office descended into a long, sickly, drawn out game of finger-pointing and ‘he said, she said’.
The timing was atrocious, with Taylor having just played a pivotal role in a stunning (and rare) 167-run Test victory over Sri Lanka in Colombo. Taylor emerged with the most credit in the wake of the debacle but headed home to Hamilton to be with his family and get his head around his axing, rather than packing his cricket coffin and getting on the plane to South Africa with his successor Brendon McCullum and the team. A worse outcome from a coach’s hunch could not be imagined.
The second was described by many onlookers – pessimists and optimists alike – as the darkest day for New Zealand cricket, and it ironically occurred on a beautiful Cape Town morning in early January. In 100 awful minutes and 116 terrible balls, New Zealand crashed to 45 all out, dismembered by a combination of sensational bowling by Vernon Philander and an embarrassing exhibition of inept batting.
With all of these shenanigans and a stench of disaster around the game, it is no surprise the flame of passion in the souls of cricket lovers across the country has somewhat diminished since the absorbing home and away series against England five years ago. Since 2008, when England dominated the Tests and Twenty20s but were subservient to New Zealand in 50-over cricket, the two sides have only met a couple of times in international competitions. But even without a regular pattern of games to look back at, it is clear England have become much stronger in a period of undoubted decay for New Zealand.
There is also much admiration for an England team we watch on satellite television in our winters, playing to huge crowds at iconic cricketing venues like Lord’s and Trent Bridge. Some of the trepidation amongst Kiwi cricket fans is driven by the realisation that England are battle-hardened after a successful tour of India, and will enjoy our local conditions that are not hugely dissimilar to the green and pleasant lands of many English counties. Of course, as much as we appreciate the skills of the current crop of English players, our real envy is reserved for the traditions, citadels, and bedrock of support that underpin cricket in the Motherland. All are much weaker in New Zealand.
There is a skerrick of optimism at the end of the black hole, if only for us hardy folk at Beige Brigade HQ where our love for the game is less fickle than most Kiwis, and not contingent on racking up a column that reads WWWWW. The good news is that the team thrashed within an inch of its credibility in South Africa is set to be bolstered by some wizened heads. KFC-loving former captain Taylor has returned to the fold to take out vengeance for his mistreatment by the fish-heads in power on a seasoned English bowling attack. They should be joined by angry young man Tim Southee and the Barmy Army’s favourite cricketing wizard Daniel Vettori.
One old-but-new face the Kiwi faithful are hoping will explode onto the international scene is former Australian keeper-batsman Luke Ronchi. Born in the southern Hawke’s Bay hamlet of Dannevirke, 31-year-old Ronchi had a taste of the top level back in 2008 when he played a handful of pyjama cricket games for Australia. Returning to New Zealand last year, he has been in sparkling form for the Wellington Firebirds, his vicious pull and hook shots complemented by an arsenal of cover drives and eye-catching glovework.
The other good news is for British tourists making the effort to head to God’s Own: there are some cracking venues on the tour itinerary with grassy embankments awaiting English posteriors at Wellington and Dunedin. The cold, vast, rugby-centric concrete wasteland of Eden Park is also on the schedule and will host the third and final Test, bringing Auckland’s 2,000-day Test match drought to an end. Although there is no doubting the pitch, the outfield and the facilities will be first class, a campaign is underway for a more intimate inner city venue to host cricket in Auckland – but unfortunately this won’t be in play for England’s arrival.
There is something quite special about England touring New Zealand – perhaps a mutual hatred of Australian arrogance brings us together. Certainly both teams possess thick-skinned fans mostly at the cricket as an excuse for a few beers, a lot of laughs and a genuine affection for the game. May the farts and the thunder begin…
Paul Ford is the co-founder of the Beige Brigade, the long-suffering Kiwi cricket supporters group who operate under the motto “It’s about passion, not fashion” and divert attention from the current team by donning the old brown and tan one-day uniforms from the 1980s.