Cricket: Captain of yin and spin

By Dylan Cleaver

If you want a sure-fire way of starting a debate that lacks any passion, ask this question: What do you think of the first 15 months of Daniel Vettori's captaincy?

This writer has been asking that question a fair bit over the past couple of weeks and the response has been almost numbingly bland.

"He's done about as well as could be expected with the tools at his disposal; he has won most of the games he should have and lost most of the ones he was expected to; he's still learning but there are signs he is becoming a more influential figure."

Look for controversy and Vettori in the same sentence and you'll come up with a very small list. He's the yin to Kevin Pietersen's yang and Vettori would be quite happy not to accumulate the sort of headlines over the course of a career that KP generated in a month.

There was, of course, the circumstances around his becoming "the captain of everything" (his words, which he came to regret) which involved the unceremonious toppling of a cricketing pillar. He was the recipient of selectorial shenanigans rather than the provocateur.

There was, too, the contrived controversy surrounding the action of Shaun Tait that came about largely because of Vettori's nervy "ask the coach" response to a hand grenade of a question, rather than any ill will towards the Aussie speedster.

So if you're desperate for a powderkeg, even defining, moment in the first phase of Vettori's captaincy career then look no further than the balcony at The Oval when an irate skipper, backed up by some willing henchmen, did everything except challenge England's management to a bare-knuckle brawl in the wake of Grant Elliott's unfortunate run out.

Behind the glasses and urbane veneer for the first time perhaps we saw the beating heart of a man who cares passionately about playing, and winning, for his country. Not surprisingly, Vettori does not look back upon those antics with any fondness.

"For me, personally, I cringe every time I see it," Vettori says. "I have genuine embarrassment about it."

Yet the weight of public opinion tended to come down on Vettori's side. Even if you didn't happen to think Paul Collingwood's decision to accept the run out was the crime of the century, most people still thought it was okay to see a captain that so badly wanted to win.

"New Zealanders love to see the passion but I think it could have been done without the expletives from all of us and we were pretty contrite after it had calmed down. In saying that, it did mean so much to us to win that series and the position we'd got ourselves into...we were all a little nervous that it was going to slip away from us.

"New Zealanders can expect the same passion, but just tempered."

That incident came during what could be called Vettori's honeymoon period, where poor results could be excused because Vettori was a neophyte captain taking over from a guy who had stamped his imprimatur on the team for the best part of a decade; and because his teams were decimated by injury and defections to the ICL.

The test thrashings in South Africa and capitulation in England were humbling but not unexpected.

That period ended with the tour to Australia where New Zealand didn't compete with an Australian team that was demonstrably on the slide.

The West Indies was a chance for a small measure of redemption but rain and Chris Gayle denied them.

Nobody could accuse Vettori of not leading from the front but there is a sense of impatience when it comes to results in test cricket that he and new coach Andy Moles know they must address. The public are getting less tolerant of a team whose only glories have come in the one-dayers.

"There was an expectation we should have beaten the West Indies but we didn't manage that," he says. "I see within the team and the players that we should have the makings of a good test side but we haven't quite seen that translated into results yet.

"We've always had concerns over our top-order batting and getting results out of them to set up our strength, which has been the middle order. I look now and [Tim] McIntosh, [Jamie] How, with [Daniel] Flynny coming into three and [Ross] Taylor at four and have extremely high hopes for all those four guys."

Vettori said the structured nature of one-day cricket had suited the skill-set in the side but he couldn't explain why New Zealand had become so flawed in the five-day game.

"It almost seemed like we were unsure of what style to play ... There were obviously guys who would put up good individual performances but as a team we could never quite get it together. John Bracewell put a lot of work into it to see why it wasn't working but we just didn't get it right.

"If you look at it simplistically, we never got the runs we needed to put ourselves in good positions."

But in terms of captaincy, Vettori gets the biggest buzz from test cricket.

"It's certainly the most demanding aspect of the game. The formulaic nature of one-day and Twenty20 means that while you're still captaining the side, you can do parts of it by rote.

But a test match, two-hour sessions, on the field for days at a time, the field settings and tactics come into play a lot more and it's certainly the sternest test of you as a player and even more so a captain."

AFTER FLEMING left, a power triumvirate was quickly established with Vettori, Brendon McCullum and Bracewell.

The coach might have left but Vettori would be the first one to admit he still leans heavily on his vice-captain. They're different characters who, paradoxically, share a lot of the same traits.

Whereas it was a surprise to see Vettori mouthing obscenities at The Oval, McCullum was always likely to be there, frothing at the mouth.

"There's an aggressive streak in me but Brendon certainly takes it to a higher level."

Vettori says that when they're faced with a problem that could

have a defensive or an offensive solution, he tends to be able to see the merits in both approaches while McCullum will dial up his aggressive side every time.

"As a team, you need those balancing ideas but having an aggressive guy on your team never hurts you."

Vettori is sensitive to the wicketkeeper's form slump at the moment, just as he was sensitive to the sheer weight of criticism Bracewell received.

When asked for a low point during his tenure, he has no hesitation in saying the treatment meted out to Bracewell by the media and residents of talkbackland.

He remains an unabashed admirer of the coach who will work with Gloucestershire in the coming county season, saying he played his best
cricket under his tutelage and will forever be grateful for his guidance.

"I felt sad for him," he says. "I got on with him exceptionally well and he drove me to become the player I have over the past three or four years. Every time I see derogatory comments towards him I feel real sympathy because he was a good coach and didn't deserve the vitriol."

Vettori said he found Andy Moles quite similar in approach to Bracewell, in that he lets the captain dictate terms on the park, chipping in only when necessary.

"I like it when the coach takes over in between games. I've got enough on my plate trying to bat and bowl and lead the team so as soon as the game is over I prefer for the coach to take charge. Both Andy and Braces have done that."

THE FACT he is bowling as well as he ever has probably makes leadership that much easier. At times against the West Indies he looked like he was playing cricket on a different plane to his opponents. What is remarkable is that Vettori is not a huge "ripper" of the ball but his control of flight and drift is unparalleled among left-arm spinners and perhaps only the freakish Muttiah Muralitharan in all the Kingdom of Spindom can lay claim to having similar
control.

"This is the most comfortable I've felt with my bowling and it has been great to get the results and see myself move up the rankings...

"I'd love to be a spinner that can come in and can turn it as much as a Muralitharan or a Harbhajan Singh. I try to put as much on the ball whenever it is appropriate but maybe I have lost a bit of turn but hopefully I've made up for that with a little guile and deception. That seems to be working for me just as well as if I was turning it square."

Nowhere was Vettori's importance to the side more evident than in Bangladesh, where New Zealand looked set for one of their darkest hours until Vettori won the match singlehandedly - and that can be written without a hint of hyperbole.

"From a personal level and a captaincy level, the test match in Bangladesh stands out. I know there's the expectation you're meant to turn up and thrash Bangladesh every time you play them but the situation that we got ourselves into and to be able to fight out of it and my own performance was very rewarding.

"You look back on the England one-day series, home and away, and we showed that even with the injuries and the players leaving we could still compete at an international level."

Vettori, 30 this month, has made it clear he will stand aside from captaincy in 2011. Is that an indication he has not enjoyed the job as much as he perhaps might have thought?

"I do enjoy it. I guess sometimes I find it a bit daunting, but that's more off the field than on it.

"On the field, I love the tactical side. Because I'm a bowling captain, I feel I have a good understanding of when the best times are to bowl particular players and when the opportune time to attack or defend is.

"Off the field, at times, yes, it can be a bit daunting and overwhelming. But those are fleeting times and easily outweighed by the feelings you get when you lead a team to victory."

- Herald on Sunday

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