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Cricket: Test puzzler for McCullum

New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum is trying to pinpoint why his team cannot translate limited overs success to the test arena.

It follows the opening five-wicket victory over England at Lord's where, apart from the panic of losing two wickets in the opening over, they controlled the chase through middle-order partnerships to get home with 19 balls to spare.

After filtering through the statistical and observational data of the past couple of weeks, McCullum believes the answer comes from how the sport is differentiated.

His hypothesis (and it remains a work-in-progress) indicates New Zealand batsmen feel more comfortable or insulated being subject to restrictions or parameters on how they play the game. Those might include fielding restrictions for power plays and a cap of 10 overs per bowler. Limited overs therefore becomes manageable; unlimited overs remains a step too far.

"It's important for us to separate the different formats. We've got an experienced one-day unit which meant at one for two, Martin [Guptill] and Ross [Taylor] assessed the situation and counter-punched well. Grant [Elliott] was efficient in getting a partnership going with Martin as was James [Franklin] towards the end.

"It swung the ascendancy our way. It was nice to see the guys knock the total off and important to recognise the bowlers because I thought 260 [rather than England's 227] was a par score.

"Limited overs forces us into a certain pace we need to play at. That's something we saw today. Guys assessed the situation and played accordingly. Sometimes in tests we're still learning to address the situation and work out a successful plan."

The situation where the team fluctuates between commanding victories and excruciating defeats is a regular phenomenon. When they are focused on survival or redeeming their reputation, rather than naked winning, they perform better.

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

In South Africa, they capitulated in the tests and came back to win the one-dayers. Against England they lost the opening T20 match, won the second when hopes were reduced and lost the third by 10 wickets. Similarly, the one-dayers were shared before England won the decider.

Even in the home tests against England they dominated the first, survived the second and came within a wicket of victory in the third. In this series they're fighting back after test trouncings.

The Herald on Sunday spoke to Gary Hermansson, professor of sports psychology at Massey University and someone who has worked with the team in the past, when this theme first emerged in February. He said it works like a mathematical equation: Winning team + high expectations + pressure = poor performance.

Alternatively: Losing team + low expectations - pressure = great performance.

He cited the 2011 Australian test series: "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.

"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."

As a result, the odds are definitely in England's favour ahead of today's second one-dayer near Southampton. They may need more heroics from Guptill - who scored the first one-day international century by a New Zealander at Lord's to give the visitors their five-wicket win. The Marylebone Cricket Club remains a venue New Zealand has never lost in three completed 50-over matches.

It was Guptill's third one-day century in 70 matches. His first came on debut against the West Indies in January 2009 and his second against Zimbabwe in Harare in October 2011. He escaped an lbw review from the bowling of Tim Bresnan on 99 in the 47th over - and could have been denied his century by four byes.

That drew the scores level on 227 - but the ball went perilously close to hitting a spare helmet on the field, which would have yielded five runs under the rules of the game and would have left him stranded. Guptill defended a delivery before pulling the next to the boundary and finishing 103 not out.

It was a mark of the recovery work undertaken by Guptill, along with Ross Taylor in a second-wicket partnership of 120, that the pair dug in and pulled off a survival job - which turned into a demonstration of batting leadership - beyond anything anyone had produced recently in white clothes. The successful chase was higher than anything New Zealand had produced in the tests with a best of 220 at Leeds.

Guptill was stronger than usual square of the wicket rather than his customary straight drives; Taylor was brutal through cover on his way to 54.

Southee was the best of the New Zealand bowlers with three for 37, continuing the form of his 10-wicket haul in the test match at the same ground. His opening spell of five overs, two for 12, including two wicket maidens, was the best of the innings.

Meanwhile, the flurry of wickets in their middle order stalled the innings on a useful batting pitch. Mitchell McClenaghan, Southee and Nathan McCullum prevented England from scoring a boundary from overs 28 through to 34.

Luke Ronchi began his international debut for New Zealand with an energetic wicketkeeping display which suggests he has a promising future, despite his 32 years.

With Brendon McCullum assuming the leadership and becoming increasingly fragile behind the stumps, Ronchi's two catches to dismiss openers Ian Bell and Alastair Cook were executed with dives performed with ease.

- Herald on Sunday

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