Paul Lewis on sport
Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Ball bashers fail the test


I once knew a batsman who played for Auckland. A good bat, with way more talent than we ordinary cricketing mortals.

He had, however, a weakness for the hook shot. Great when it came off and the ball rocketed to the boundary. It looked a bit sick when it didn't - a tame surrender of his wicket to an obvious ploy.

"Get rid of the hook," I said to him once, after he'd gone out that way. "It doesn't have a lot to do with me," he replied.

He meant that, in the split-second territory governed by reflexes and human eye-hand co-ordination, his body reacted to a hook-able ball almost of its own accord. He couldn't help it. It was an involuntary action in the admittedly difficult environment of someone bowling a hard object at you from not very far away at about 140km/h.

Bunkum is what it was. That, right there, is what is wrong with the Black Caps' top order batting as seen in horrendous technicolour in the first test against Australia and other test matches as well. It is The Way We Play syndrome.

Before yesterday's gutsier second innnings effort, our leading bats seemed to have adopted a play-freely approach designed to unsettle the opposition bowlers. It wasn't working - and they deserved sympathy for trying to play conservatively after being shot in on a green-top which seemed specially prepared to take advantage of the fragility of the New Zealand batsmen of the week before.

That the Australians then struggled themselves brought perspective - but didn't change the fact that, in test cricket, the Black Caps have often batted carelessly.

Top of the pops for criticism on this score is Brendon McCullum, the vastly talented batsman whose stroke play can change a match - winning or losing it. But it is far from McCullum's problem alone. The Black Caps' top order did not seem to know where their off-stump was in the first test; were confused about which balls to leave and which to hit; drove at swinging deliveries they could have defended or left.

It was an embarrassing blow to John Wright's coaching. Revered in this country for selling his wicket dearly, Wright and colleague Bruce Edgar were renowned for their gutsy approach. They stood firm and defended and built New Zealand innings around that stubbornness and grit.

Only Mark Richardson has approached that same order of defence, belief and results since.

Whether it's because of T20 or one-day cricket is immaterial. New Zealand batsmen adopted The Way We Play as shield and protector. If they got out chasing a ball, it's the way we play. If they were caught in the gully, slashing at one that could have been left for an attacking shot later in the innings, it's the way we play.

It has become not so much a shield, but an excuse; a prop to lean on. They need to leave it behind, as they are indeed doing in Hobart.

Martin Guptill seems a fine bat, with a good technique. He got one badly wrong in the first test, prodding the ball to the short leg catchers as it homed in on his body. How many times did Wright and Edgar wear a ball like that on the body; taking a bit of a tattooing so that they kept their wicket? His second innings dismissal was also a ball he did not need to play.

That is what raised the ire of Kiwi cricket fans - their brave soldiers didn't seem as brave, as committed any more. It is not just down to McCullum. Many of the top six retain signs of The Way We Play.

I just do not believe that test-class cricketers cannot change and cannot discipline themselves. Test level batsmen must have the ability to play a different way. Go back through McCullum's test innings and you'll find that he is not always - in fact, mostly not - an out-and-out basher. It admittedly looks that way at times but he's played plenty of bigger knocks in recent times where caution wasn't dropkicked over square leg - like 65 off 122 balls against India, 104 in 187 balls against Australia, 51 in 98 against the Aussies again, and 73 off 154 balls against Pakistan. Then there was his dogged 16 on Friday - which looks like a failure until you take the pitch and the Australian batsmen into account.

He - and others - can do it. So why isn't it happening more? T20 and one-day cricket can take some of the blame for honing those involuntary reflexes. The Australians, Indians and others play plenty of T20 cricket but snap back into test mode. Wright can also shoulder some of the blame for his coaching and exhortations to bat time not, apparently, getting through.

But you keep coming back to The Way We Play. Ridding the Black Caps of this notion seems to be the single highest priority. New Zealand Cricket might also have missed a trick in not making McCullum captain. This column was in favour of McCullum over Ross Taylor, partly because such an appointment might rub some of the hasty edges off McCullum; encouraging him to take a more captainly role when batting.

That is not to say that the Black Caps' woes are down to McCullum not being captain and giving it the swish as a result. That is plainly not the case. I do not believe the Black Caps don't care about test cricket; that they are so blinded by the money in the short forms that they just shrug and move on. I think they care a great deal - but they are locked in a muddle of their own making.

The Way We Play has become a bit of a mantra; a bit like Mrs Slocombe's pussy in that hoary old British TV comedy Are You Being Served. The Way We Play has become its own reason for being. It reminds me of the time Mrs S rang her next door neighbour, saying: "Would you do me a favour? Would you go to my front door, bend down, look through the letter slot ... and if you can see my pussy, please drop a sardine on the mat."

We've dropped enough sardines. Time for a permanent change.

- Herald on Sunday

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