x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

New Zealand are staring into the Test cricket abyss

It is time for the cricket board to set their house in order before the Kiwis become irrelevant to the game.

New Zealand's Brendon McCullum, left, and Martin Guptill are playing the West Indies.
New Zealand's Brendon McCullum, left, and Martin Guptill are playing the West Indies.

To really feel bleak about the future of cricket, look beyond the financial muscle of India, the maladministration in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the myopia of England, the me-too India-appeasement of Australia and South Africa, and even the fall of the Caribbean.

Take a peek instead at New Zealand, which for some time has been drifting untethered towards a long dark sky of indifference and irrelevance.

It has not gone unnoticed, just not cared for which is worse. It should come into sharp focus given that they have spent the last few weeks being walloped by the West Indies.

Think about this last sentence, particularly the fact the last time it could have been written of the West Indies was the early 1990s. Yet the Kiwis have lost six of seven limited-overs matches and were beaten by West Indies in the first Test by nine wickets.

It has been a long, deep decline. The last time New Zealand won a Test series against anyone other than Bangladesh or Zimbabwe was in March 2006 (against the West Indies).

In the last decade, they have won just four Test series against anyone other than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and two if the West Indies are not included. So if they do lose this series, it has the makings of a very significant landmark in a continuing fall.

You could argue results are a cyclical phenomenon and that New Zealand have never had a huge pool of talent to pick from. Cricket is not their major sport and their team, traditionally, has done well despite the limited resources.

But if this was only about on-field results, it would not be quite so alarming.

If, for example, you wanted to apply a purist's test of commitment to Test cricket, New Zealand would fail. India is roundly, loudly criticised for not caring enough about the format but what about New Zealand?

Forget that they have not played a five-Test series in 40 years - those are more or less obsolete now.

But since October 2004, they have only played nine three-Test series and 18 one or two-Test series. Five of their next six Test assignments are two-Test series.

Over the next Future Tours Programme (FTP) they are scheduled 80 Tests, more only than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Sure they do not command the pull of the big sides as an opponent, but how have they managed to negotiate less commitments than even Pakistan, a board struggling for friends during the last FTP negotiations?

You might also look at the imminent coaching change and wonder about the board.

The incumbent John Wright has aborted his stint and will leave after this series, replaced by Mike Hesson, who was coaching Kenya.

Wright was in charge during a recent upturn in fortunes, including a surprise semi-final run at the 2011 World Cup, a historic and rare Test win over Australia and a pretty respectable 1-0 series loss to South Africa. He is an honest, committed man, with solid achievement.

Yet he is leaving because the board placed above him John Buchanan as the director of cricket. It was, as the New Zealand writer Paul Thomas explained in May, like mixing oil with water and hoping for a nice cocktail.

"It was all too predictable that philosophical differences would make their presence felt, given that Wright's approach to the game is based on the conviction that it isn't rocket science, while Buchanan seems intent on transforming cricket into, if not rocket science, at least a moderately advanced branch of applied physics."

Buchanan's record with Australia is outstanding (even if the extent of his contribution towards creating it is often disputed) but in New Zealand, he has found a test lab for his offbeat theories. He has hired a former lawn bowls administrator as head selector. He was also in talks to appoint a separate ODI coach, leaving Wright - who did not know of this - in charge of Tests and T20s.

To everyone other than New Zealand Cricket, this pairing was not going to work.

Over the next year, the matter of New Zealand will emerge often. They play India, Sri Lanka and South Africa away and England home and away; in not many of those Tests can happy endings be foreseen.

They might not even be able to field their strongest side for England next summer.

Although the West Indies are usually placed in the spotlit intrusion of the Indian Premier League's (IPL) schedule on to the international calendar, New Zealand's players have effectively forced a window into their central contracts to allow them to play the IPL every year after a contracts dispute in 2009.

The only time a window cannot be guaranteed is when they tour England because the dates clash; once, in 2009, the players chose country over club. It probably will not happen again.

And so, soon they may not matter. New Zealand were never the strongest but they always had an appeal, like some cool, unruffled indie band, shuffling around the back before having some days in the sun and in always falling short of greatness, acquiring a different, lighter kind of greatness.


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