Thursday, 6 December 2012

New Zealand in war with itself

I’m not sure if anybody has ever shot themselves in the foot. As a phrase, it has excellent connotations. Gun. Foot. Your Hand on the trigger. Best not to do anything silly. Foot in pieces. Oh dear God, the shame, the shame.

What New Zealand Cricket seem to be doing at the moment is waging a Shock and Awe attack on its own foot. Warships are circling around the heel. Airstrikes continue nightly on the entire surface area, and the ground troops are about to be deployed to finish off anything stupid enough to survive.

Once Dan Vettori decided to shed captaincy from his all-encompassing list of responsibilities (strike bowler, chief century maker, museum curator), the board took an admirable punt on arguably the most talented batsman of this Kiwi generation, Ross Taylor. What he offered was more than traditional captaincy and star power (he’s one of a couple first choice imports in the IPL from NZ). More importantly, he’s of a largely untapped (yet very influential) ethnicity.

NZ cricket, for years, has punched well above its weight. A bunch of plucky, prickly, industrious cricketers spearheaded by the odd legend (Hadlee, M Crowe) or a couple of outstanding players (Bond, C Cairns) always seemed to form a sum greater than the parts. The fact Chris Harris caused sleepless nights to the Waugh-era Australian team speaks volumes.

Cricket has moved briskly into a much more professional era since the days where Darryl Tuffey was making home videos, however. By virtue of the all-conquering All Blacks Rugby team, it could be argued that New Zealand – pound for pound – were the kings of the amateur sporting era. Nowadays, any sport needs exposure and money to survive. With the All Blacks recently shaking off world sports most baffling of curses by winning the Rugby World Cup, Cricket in NZ needs to fight harder for sponsorship dollars and column space than it ever has before.

Recently, a struggling Black Caps team haven’t helped their paymasters cause. The biggest untapped source to turn this around would appear to be a lack of Maori/Polynesian cricket players. For all of New Zealand’s proud heritage of integration and inclusive sporting culture, the cricket team is almost exclusively European or, in recent times, South African. Whilst they’d still compare favourably with Australia’s or even South Africa’s relevant ratios, it is not something that can be flippantly ignored. A recent survey of Polynesian children found cricket 16th on the list of their preferred sports. Fishing was 10th.

Which is what brings me to the Ross Taylor fiasco. What we have here is a captain who has led a team that it is made up of more spare parts than the average Canterbury farm-truck to some admirable performances in Sri Lanka. They drew a test seres 1-1 (England, the world’s No. 1 ranked team, were beaten 2-1), and drew 1-1 in the T20 series after a super over defeat. Sri Lanka, remember, made the final of the T20 World Cup a matter of weeks ago.

Mike Hesson is the current NZ coach. He got the gig via his performances as coach of Otago and Kenya. Potential, maybe. Experienced, no. Risky, definitely. Hesson, who is close to Brendan McCullum, has reportedly asked Taylor to step down as captain (apparently Vettori supports this). It shouldn’t take an awful lot of thought to work out what that would do team morale. For tangible ramifications, Martin Crowe has already quit as a talent scout in protest of Taylor’s treatment, and Taylor could pull out of the South Africa tour. Even John Buchanan, the current director of cricket renowned for picking fights with superstar players, is dismayed at Taylor’s treatment. But what would be more concerning is the missed opportunity to engage the Maori and Pacific Islander public.

Cricket in NZ is up against a rampant and almost monopolistic Rugby team (not to mention the lure of money in foreign lands) for attention. The sooner the board grabs its few opportunities and squeezes them dry, much like the Fleming-era ODI team, the better.

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