The Shame Game: All agree NZ cricket system broken, but where to next?

By Dylan Cleaver

Shallow talent pool takes edge off players' motivation to be the best in the world.

Scott Styris and Kane Williamson find it easy to get to the international level, but harder to excel there. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Scott Styris and Kane Williamson find it easy to get to the international level, but harder to excel there. Photo / Mark Mitchell

When a player was approached to contribute to a story on New Zealand Cricket's high-performance set-up, his answer while politely declining proved instructive.

"What high-performance set-up?"

If you measure the health of a sport by the performance of the flagship team, and you grade the success of the flagship team by the high-performance mechanisms that service it, then by any measure NZC is failing abysmally.

You need only to look at the comings and goings to realise this is a body that has been unable to set a course and follow it.

Ric Charlesworth was touted as a redeemer but left having stopped well short of saviour status.

Roger Mortimer was brought in to try to tailor programmes to the needs of individuals instead of a cookie-cutter approach, but was jettisoned early because of small minds who felt his lack of cricket expertise was holding the organisation up to ridicule.

There has been a carousel of curious appointments and the search for coaches - four since John Bracewell left in 2008 - has proved one thing only: New Zealand is an unattractive destination for the game's top minds.

If you listen to notable critics, particularly Martin Crowe, the seeds of New Zealand's decline were planted in an emphasis on biomechanics. For others it was the creation of a centralised academy at Lincoln. Most acknowledge a poor domestic scene is a key problem.

Put another way: the only thing everyone agrees is that it is broken.

In the latest survey by the players' association, one figure stands out in flashing neon. A staggering 64 per cent of the country's professional and semi-professional players "are not aware of, and do not understand, how the NZC high-performance programme works".

For former test player Dion Nash, the equation is simple. "We've taken our focus away from the importance of winning. We've lost sight of the fact that winning ugly is fine. In every game there is a juncture where you have to hold on a bit longer, fight a bit longer. Somewhere along the line we've gone from being gritty, determined cricketers to flashy, quite talented cricketers. Now we've got to somehow join the two up."

Part of the problem, one that can't be fixed easily, is a shallow talent pool. That has the effect of magnifying good young players before they've earned it. Crowe and Kane Williamson are cases in point.

They were barely out of shorts when they were touted as the future of New Zealand batting and, not surprisingly, both struggled early to fulfil those expectations.

Crowe turned into a magnificent player; Williamson, 22 and with three test centuries to his name, may yet.

"We get to the top really easily if we've got some talent," Nash said.

"The best motivation in the world is competition from beneath or within. We don't have enough of that. That's a fact of life in New Zealand.

"When you haven't got loads of talent pushing through, it's really hard to keep guys focused on becoming the best in the world. They become the best in the team and feel there's not a lot more they need to do."

Nash said he always liked to pit himself against Shaun Pollock when New Zealand played South Africa, given they were fulfilling similar roles. "I had great games against him, there were others I didn't.

"Then I remember looking at the statistics at the end of his career and he'd taken 400 test wickets [431] and 4000 test runs [3781] in 100-odd tests [108]. I was like, 'Holy shit!' They're phenomenal numbers.

"Now, did he become a champion because he set out to become one, because of the external environment he was given or because of internal competition to hold his place in the side? It's probably a combination, but I suspect the third point is the most crucial.

"During his time he had Jacques Kallis, Lance Klusener, Andrew Hall, Brian McMillan all trying to be the team's allrounders. To be in the team you did need to average 30 with the bat and 25 with the ball. And it didn't necessarily mean you were the best."

Nash said Taylor and McCullum of the current team were best placed to become genuinely world class, but both had to lift their averages by between five to 10 runs first.

"They will go down as fantastic New Zealand cricketers, regardless of what happens from here, but if that team is to win regularly, those guys need to step up another gear."

Warren Lees, a former coach and player, said a poor first-class scene was the principal factor behind the precipitous fall from the late-1980s, when some of the greats started moving on. "Our cricket wasn't strong enough to produce the next players."

Whether it was a generational/ societal shift or merely the awkward move into professionalism, players had also lost the ability to be self-reliant.

"They don't take responsibility for decisions," Lees said. "If the milk is not the right temperature on their Weet-Bix they'll have a bad day; or if the bus is eight minutes late someone is going to react. They can't take things on board and say 'the world is not perfect and we've got to make most of what we've got'."

Players' association boss Heath Mills has a slightly different take. When you look at the comings and goings, he says, is it really a huge surprise that players often look confused about what their role is and how they're meant to go about it.

He would love to see the likes of Crowe used more within a genuine high-performance set-up.

"There are three fundamental building blocks to running a successful high-performance programme.

"One, athletes being able to commit fulltime through professional contracts. Two, athletes are supported by fulltime coaching and support staff. Three, having the facilities and resources to improve your performance. Without any one of these three pillars, the whole thing collapses."

Mills said they were close to ticking box one, although major association contracts still ran for only half the year.

And the others?

"New Zealand remains the most under-resourced team in world cricket. Teams like Australia, England, South Africa and India have twice the staff... yet New Zealand lose a couple of games and you hear the same old people complaining about too many people hanging around the team.

"The third box we're not even close to ticking. We don't provide our coaches and players with the facilities to get better. Auckland went to the Champions League without practising on grass in their own city.

"For six months of the year, our cricket bosses put the sport down to sleep. In terms of high-performance at domestic level, that's where we lose. I talk to people in Auckland Cricket and Otago Cricket about this and they stare at me like I'm talking a different language. There are still people here, even at the highest level, who think cricket begins on Labour Weekend."

"As long as that continues, every other team in the world will continue to get better than us."

Preparing for mid-winter tours a soggy struggle

When New Zealand headed for the Caribbean in July, they'd had no preparation time together.

The result was a single ODI win out of nine internationals against the West Indies.

Being ill-prepared for overseas tours out of New Zealand's winter has long been an issue. So what chance of groundsmen preparing a decent outdoor pitch for preparatory purposes in June-July? According to two of the country's leading turf experts, slim.

"It would be a struggle," Seddon Park's turf boss Karl Johnson said yesterday. Part of the problem in Hamilton is the Waikari clay on which the pitch block is based. "It is a swelling clay so it does take a lot longer to dry than other clays. There is an off-chance you could do it, but in my view it would be pretty slim."

Johnson remembered preparing a pitch during winter at Lincoln, where New Zealand Cricket's high-performance operation is based, "many moons ago. But it wasn't easy and they don't play as well as what you'd get in February or March".

Eden Park turf manager Mark Perham concurred with Johnson's assessment.

"If you got lucky it could happen. But there's massive risks trying to do it in winter here. It could turn into a shambles and there's no security in doing it here."

Perham estimated it would take about 25 days to prepare a winter pitch, but "why bring a whole team to Auckland in the middle of winter to train, when it could rain for three days and you don't get any training at all?"

He has explored building a covered facility with more than 20 pitches, with the ability to change climates to mirror, for example, the humidity before a tour to Sri Lanka.

But a top line setup would cost about $6 million, which poses the first problem in any future plans to build what would be an ideal facility.

The series

Monday: The Herald series began with exploring the "disconnect" between New Zealand Cricket and the fans, and asked if this is the worst period in New Zealand's test history

Tuesday: New Zealand cricket and the media, the brand NZC Inc and the Black Caps moniker.

Yesterday: The game at grassroots level, and exploring the minimal impact of Maori and Pacific Island players.

Tomorrow: The issue of franchising domestic teams, and could a transtasman league work?

- NZ Herald

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