Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Cricket: See-saw series hard to explain

It's boom or bust for New Zealand, writes Andrew Alderson, either winning when forsaken or choking on high expectations

Ian Butler bowled superbly in Hamilton, but was hit everywhere in Wellington. Photo / Getty Images
Ian Butler bowled superbly in Hamilton, but was hit everywhere in Wellington. Photo / Getty Images

There may be some kind of method in the perceived madness of the New Zealand cricketers as they oscillate between commanding victories and excruciating defeats.

Recent results indicate major upturns in performance when there is more emphasis on survival and less on winning.

A pattern has emerged since the Sri Lanka tour in November. They lost the first test. Then, when the execution of basic cricket skills was called for to avoid a sixth consecutive defeat, Ross Taylor produced his batting heroics in Colombo to win the second test.

Likewise, in South Africa, they capitulated in the tests and came back to win the one-dayers. Against England they lost the opening T20 match (under the expectation they would continue their South African form), won the second when such hopes were reduced and suffered humiliation in the decider on Friday night where no team in 304 T20Is had scored more runs (140) to secure a 10-wicket win.

The odds are New Zealand will fight back today in the first one-dayer in Hamilton.

Gary Hermansson, professor of sports psychology at Massey University, says it works like a mathematical equation: Winning team + high expectations + pressure = poor performance. Alternatively: Losing team + low expectations - pressure = great performance.

He cites the Australian test series at the end of 2011: "Ahead of the first test in Brisbane, New Zealand's chances were talked up. They lost heavily (by nine wickets). Then the focus turned to the need to just perform and be credible in the second test at Hobart. They won by seven runs.

"Too much emphasis on winning results in choking, rather than applying the methods and techniques they would normally put in place to perform. Skill levels go out the window and you end up with a result like that first T20 international against England - where simple catches are inexplicably dropped.

"The public reaction can then be quite savage and the team goes into its shell and produces a better performance as underdogs by focusing on the quality of their game. It's a rollercoaster. We saw a similar pattern with the All Blacks in World Cup years up until 2011."

Hermansson says the scenario occurs in individuals too. He cites the case of Ian Butler who bowled superbly for figures of two wickets for nine runs from his four overs in Hamilton. Butler was swatted for 41 runs from 2.4 overs in Wellington. His final ball - to end the match - was last seen headed from Michael Lumb's bat towards Eastbourne.

Coach Mike Hesson is at a loss to explain the see-sawing results.

"It's hard to gauge why we had three such uneven contests. We played exceptionally well in one and got outplayed in the other two. With the bat we didn't adjust to the English bowling lengths from overs 10-18 (on Friday). It's not something we're going to dwell on. We were just given a hiding."

Hesson has no concerns for Ross Taylor continuing in the one-day team at this stage. Taylor returned 23 runs from 24 balls in three innings, having spent just 34 minutes at the crease.

"It's T20 and if Ross had got another couple out of the screws, he'd be away. We're playing good one-day cricket (after the South Africa series win). Adding Ross strengthens our middle order. We just need to nail a blueprint of how we want to play. We need to build some solid top-order partnerships.

- Herald on Sunday

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