Cricket: What future for test cricket?

By Andrew Alderson

The recipe is simple. Mix the John Wright coaching regime with a group of open-minded, tenacious players and an attitude of controlled aggression.

That is the simplest way to return New Zealand to another successful cricketing era. It is the only way to eradicate public apathy for a sport only loosely holding on to the tag "the summer game".

Wright has brought a genial yet calculated approach to coaching in his brief tenure. Some perceive him as dithering. Sure, he's not going to be invited to debate by the Oxford Union any time soon, but he has what seems a fool-proof method of getting his message across to players by keeping it simple.

He is not overbearing and looks to empower with positive thoughts rather than harsh words, meaning there have been signs in three months that he (and his coaching team of Allan Donald and Trent Woodhill) are bringing out the best in the Black Caps.

The evidence is stark. A team that could win just one ODI out of 12 on the sub-continent towards the end of last year have made the semifinals of the World Cup, lining up with "the locals" - Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.

However, there has been no perfect solution for New Zealand - inconsistencies remain. Little else can explain easing past Pakistan and South Africa but stumbling against Australia and Sri Lanka (the first time).

Wright's batting plan to be no more than three wickets down after 35 overs is a sound proposition. Against Pakistan (141 for four) and South Africa (139 for three) it worked fine but against Sri Lanka (142 for three - in the second match) the lower order could not take advantage in the last 15 overs.

To flesh out the plan further, one batsman, for example Brendon McCullum, could be given licence to let fly - after a settling-in period. The team could also thwart the somewhere-between-overs-40-and-50 mentality for the batting power play and use it earlier if two batsmen are comfortable.

Accelerating after 35 overs has to be emphasised. In the semifinal, Scott Styris battled to 35 off 44 balls only to decelerate his strike rate to be 57 off 77 when he got out 12 overs later. He had shown courage to stick around against a strong bowling attack but ultimately New Zealand were left 20-30 runs short of a winning total.

The Black Caps' bowling looked sharp throughout the tournament, especially in the absence of Kyle Mills, Vettori and Hamish Bennett at times. Donald deserves credit, as does Woodhill, with the fielding being where New Zealand was arguably the best side at the tournament.

Wright's next step, while his reputation glows, is to secure a spot as a selector on the new panel once World Cup reviews are completed. If he does that, he covers off potential glitches in his coaching plan.

It became evident Wright would not mind more control during the rotation of the Pakistan series, when selector directives clashed with what the team wanted. Wright will also look to get as much control before his new boss - NZC's yet to be appointed cricket director - takes charge.

WRIGHT HAS stressed a number of times this tour that you can't teach players"want" (note: another simple, repetitive message). How do you identify "want"? It is a largely intangible concept where players back their instincts to succeed. It was evident in a number of younger or less experienced players this tournament:

Martin Guptill (24) must have come close to being best fieldsman thanks to his determination to let nothing past the in-field and save boundaries as a sweeper.

Tim Southee (22) took 18 wickets (the third most before the final) at 17.33, producing some expert spells mastering the art of reverse swing.

Kane Williamson (20) produced three cameos at around a run-a-ball, raising questions about whether his slow scoring rate might be a myth. Dancing down the wicket to loft Muttiah Muralitharan over mid-off for four in the semifinal was a moment to be cherished.

Nathan McCullum (30) and his one-handed non-catch off Mahela Jayawardene was a triumph in determination and helped the team build its aggression.

However, the best example of "want" came from a player veteran ...

Ross Taylor's 131 not out against Pakistan was inspirational after a shaky start. It turned New Zealand's tournament around.

Those achievements bode well when considering who needs replacing over the next couple of years in the 50-over side. Scott Styris looks finished, while Jacob Oram and Daniel Vettori are undecided.

How long Kyle Mills can continue is a moot point after another couple of injuries and Daryl Tuffey, James Franklin and Andy McKay may have a battle to sustain their form as they move further into their 30s.

Some promise is emerging. Otago left-arm quick Neil Wagner (25) will have qualified to play at the start of next year. Adam Milne (18) and Ben Wheeler (23) are talented pace bowlers from Central Districts.

Daniel Flynn (25) cannot be ignored as a batsman, while Dean Brownlie (26) and BJ Watling (25) have both previously featured on the international stage.

In the all-rounder stakes, Doug Bracewell (20) has been touted as having the potential to succeed at the top level; as has Rob Nicol (27) after battling personal issues.

This coming season could see a number of those names play against a mixture of Zimbabwe (home and away), Australia (away), South Africa (home) and West Indies (away).

NEW ZEALAND also needs to keep backing their core squad over the next four years. The best ODI example in the last four years is Sri Lanka.

Seven of their starting XI from the 2007 semifinal played in Tuesday's win in Colombo compared to five New Zealanders. Vice-captain Mahela Jayawardene says handing on experience to new players after the 1996 World Cup win has been a priority.

"That group showed us how to believe; to recognise we belong and to play our natural game - winning brutally and aggressively. No matter the opposition - Australia, England, South Africa - we want them to know we're there to play."

Jayawardene also bases their success on the country's school and club structure. One awkward comparison to New Zealand is the support for school cricket. Last Sunday afternoon, at a one-dayer between D.S Senanayake College and Mahanama College, thousands poured into the Sinhalese Sports Club.

Up to 20,000 have been known to get through the gate for such school matches. New Zealand schools do not have that kind of following and emphasis, at least for cricket.

Vettori hopes their World Cup achievements could form a resurgence: "The frustrating thing is we have some exceptionally talented players. If we can start proving how good we are on a consistent basis, we'd have the makings of a good team.

"After every World Cup I've thought the talent was there to continue. It's now about applying ourselves. If I was part of starting that process with Wrighty, it would be one of my prouder achievements. Hopefully this coaching staff can stay together. I think they've done great things for the unit in a short time."

Vettori accepts the critics will not stay silent for long if results are not forthcoming.

"I have no doubt there needs to be criticism when you lose as many games as we did. We've got no right to defend ourselves when we've lost so many matches. But most of the team can be pretty proud of their achievements at the World Cup."

Future Black Caps

Speculative First XI for 2015 World Cup

Martin Guptill* (28 years old)

Brendon McCullum* (33)

Kane Williamson* (24)

Ross Taylor* (31)

Jesse Ryder* (30)

Rob Nicol (31)

Nathan McCullum* (34)

Doug Bracewell (24)

Tim Southee* (26)

Hamish Bennett* (28)

Neil Wagner (29)

Other players selected:

Colin de Grandhomme (28)

BJ Watling (29)

Daniel Flynn (29)

Ben Wheeler (23)

Likely returning players (*)

- Herald on Sunday

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