Cricket: Bat to the future

By Paul Lewis

In the midst of some often surprising objections to Daniel Vettori's escalation to a captain/selector of the New Zealand cricket team is the reason why such an appointment is appropriate.

With Vettori joining the sparsely-populated 3000 test runs and 300 test wickets club, that reason is found in his batting.

The man is a fighter. If you scroll back through Vettori's 93 test matches and 139 innings, the nascence and ascent of an all-rounder is clear; his growth from a No 10 batsman obvious. What is less clear is the fact that he has so often been the backbone of the Black Caps' batting.

Think Black Caps over the past four or five years and perhaps the main perception is one of disappointment. How many fans have felt their pulses quicken at a good Black Caps showing only to have those hopes dissolve in another eventual letdown - often from one of their well-chronicled batting collapses?

Vettori officially took over the captaincy from Stephen Fleming in 2007 but has been captaining various New Zealand teams in all forms of the game from 2006.

His bowling speaks for itself but if his batting record from that time is traversed, you begin to understand his importance to the Black Caps.

Since the beginning of 2006, Vettori has played 45 test innings with the bat. He has been top or second-top scorer 14 times. He has been our leading batsmen nearly one in three times at the crease - and that from a No 8 batsman, where he has mostly played his test cricket, usually resisting the temptation to play higher.

He is already the world record holder for runs scored from No 8 but it is his fighting qualities that impress. In test matches where New Zealand's batting has often varied only from meek to mild, Vettori has provided much of the spine; the unbent knee.

By dint of his batting position, Vettori has excelled in what have often been lost causes - the battler at the end of the line-up refusing to knuckle under; setting his jaw against the odds in a way that has shamed some of those batting higher. Jacob Oram's lamentable dismissal after a reverse sweep in the second test was a chilling example. In the first test, Vettori scored 42 in the first innings (second-top score) and 67 in the second (top scoring) to give some sort of shape to some pallid New Zealand batting against the Sri Lankan spinners at home; admittedly no easy assignment.

But he fought tooth and claw, as he so often does. If, as a selector, he can discern and employ that same quality in other New Zealand cricketers, then this observer, for one, is all for it.

Vettori will be unlikely to view many of our rising cricketers on the provincial scene - he'll barely get a game if at all - but that is what the other selectors are for.

Cricket drums beat hard when a new talent is unearthed and such is Vettori's stature in the game here that he will be able to draw accurate gauges from talent scouts, provincial coaches, colleagues and the like regarding new players.

All selections are a punt when it comes to lifting a player from the domestic to the international anyway. Vettori is ideally placed to see if a new player has technique and "ticker". The Black Caps need as much of both qualities as they can get.

That is particularly so since the rise of Twenty20 cricket, when it has been possible to recognise some blurred vision on the part of some of our top cricketers.

The money may have beckoned more than the glory of playing tests for New Zealand - even though some of those involved did the decent thing (costing themselves a great deal of money) by opting to sign their country contracts recently.

The objections to Vettori's role as a selector are valid enough - favouritism, burn-out, inability to view potential candidates in our domestic cricket, a possible tendency to hang on too long to a Vettori selection who might not be working out - all legitimate concerns.

But not enough to stymie the move.

As captain, Vettori is routinely consulted anyway, especially on tour. He is also demonstrative enough to make his feelings known - and get them acted upon.

His insistence that Chris Martin be included over bowlers favoured by the selectors was a success in the recent series against India; Mark Gillespie is a pace bowler who may now struggle to get back in the side unless he can convince Vettori that his wickets/penetration-runs equation has improved.

New Zealand cricket has tried the selectors being a separate entity from the on-field team before - with only mixed results. Fleming's tenure as a captain with a selectorial say created discomfort in the ranks of those same selectors, as made clear recently by Sir Richard Hadlee.

Let's put it another way. If New Zealand was batting to save a draw or needing runs to win, who would you want at the crease? Many would say Brendon McCullum; fair enough. Increasingly some would say Ross Taylor.

But most would probably plump, for sheer guts and likely achievement, for Vettori. Give him his head now to populate the Black Caps with players like himself, as much as possible.

* * *

If there's one certain thing about Vettori becoming only the eighth player in history to pass the 3000 runs/300 wickets barrier, it is that he is likely the ugliest batsman to do so.

That's possibly excepting Chaminda Vaas and Shane Warne, two bowlers whose longevity helped get them over 3000 runs in test cricket. Neither could be counted as a batsman of any real consequence.

At the top of the all-rounders list is a trio of greats - Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Imran Khan, closely followed by Shaun Pollock, Warne and Hadlee (New Zealand, interestingly, being the only country to have two players in this eight).

Of all of them, Vettori is the least technically correct and yet that is part of his very appeal. He can play shots that defeat field settings and he is that useful weapon - a lower order batsman who can upset the rhythm of top bowlers.

His first 1000 runs in test cricket took 47 tests and came at an average of 17.24 runs. His second 1000 runs came in 22 tests, at an average of 42.52. The third came in just 20 tests at an average of just under 34.

Those flat bat shots, hoicks, cuts, pulls and swishes are remarkably effective, as evidenced by his 20 test 50s and three centuries. Many will point to the fact that more tests are played these days and to the fact that the man usually regarded, along with Botham and Dev, as the best allrounder in the game (West Indies' Sir Gary Sobers) didn't even join the 3000/300 club as he took only 235 wickets to go with his 8000-odd test runs.

Vettori took 94 tests; Sobers played 93. Another interesting comparison is with Andrew Flintoff, now retired from tests but one of the heroes of the Ashes, who scored 3845 runs but took 226 wickets in his 76 tests.

But statistics are only that - data. They do not show the kingly aspect that surrounded players like Sobers; nor do they show the sheer fight and steel in Vettori.

- Herald on Sunday

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