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Cricket: Cricket overseas to build better NZ batsmen

The test series is mercifully behind us as the Black Caps enter the one-day world. Andrew Alderson looks at how improving New Zealand's test frailties can improve their one-day form.

Test cricket continues to serve up a cocktail of technical and psychological torment to New Zealand's batsmen, regardless of the team's belief they are preparing meticulously.

Getting no traction in the international rankings is creating frustration for team and fans alike. Concentration and control exit when pressure mounts. The last five test series overseas (excluding Ross Taylor's Colombo heroics in his last test as captain) have been in 'coulda, woulda, shoulda' category.

The batsmen unlocked runs on benign New Zealand wickets to secure a drawn three-test series against England. The redemption was short-lived, eradicated by a Sunday afternoon at Lord's where the second innings and team confidence crumbled for 68 runs.

For someone as steely as captain Brendon McCullum to admit the Lord's experience "ripped our hearts out and started to create some self-doubt, which is a horrible thing in this game" was a revelation when you consider how competitively they had played against England at home.

Mike Hesson's coaching tenure began in July. The team has played eight tests abroad for seven losses. In only one of those losses - the second against India - did the batting produce competitive totals (365 and 248). By coincidence, Taylor also made a first innings century in that test.

Eight of the 16 innings have produced sub-200 totals, although one was the second innings declaration at 194 for nine in the Colombo win. There have been two scores over 300. The visitors could muster just 669 runs over four innings in England.

This is a recurring phenomenon. Hesson's predecessor John Wright had similar problems - batsmen struggling to get totals above 300, regular dismissals for under 200 and failing to take matches into a fifth day were commonplace during his 11 tests in charge.

All the solutions seem fraught with pain and endurance. It's hard to argue the top seven batsmen have not earned their places, but how do they get better? The obvious answer is more first-class cricket overseas, longer tours, practice sessions facing as many demanding deliveries as possible and a pledge by some to devote themselves to test cricket.

Is it too difficult to believe there is honour in seeking a test legacy like Richard Hadlee or Martin Crowe rather than simply joining a host of Twenty20 circuses? No doubt the hype and cash of the shortest format is here to stay but it remains fast food compared to the Michelin star status of quality test cricket.

The final day of the draw at Eden Park is exhibit A. The jury remains out on whether any T20 specialist will be immortalised, regardless of their bank balance. None have yet.

In past generations, it was aspirational for New Zealanders to earn an English county contract and subsequently learn the intricacies of the game over a sustained period. Batsmen like Glenn Turner, Geoff Howarth, John Wright, Martin Crowe and later Stephen Fleming devoted seasons to improve their craft. Of the current contingent only Kane Williamson (Gloucestershire) and Martin Guptill (Derbyshire) have been prepared to dedicate the majority of a season to immersion in the English game.

International cricket series often disrupt such plans but NZC, agents and players must seize these opportunities if they want New Zealand's test cricket to improve.

Another key factor is selecting more test specialists in a team aimed exclusively at the game's longest form. One way to encourage it would be to award higher salaries, so players have an incentive to focus on the first-class game.

Those who might be better suited to tests - like Peter Fulton, Dean Brownlie, Trent Boult, BJ Watling, Doug Bracewell and Neil Wagner - will still, understandably, angle to play limited overs internationals because it might lead to greater riches elsewhere. Incentivising their pay packets so they become devoted to test and first-class cricket might help New Zealand's performance long term. This could also address the perennial problem of reducing player workloads.

The right personnel appear to be in place for New Zealand's top seven, although the case for McCullum to play at No5 ahead of Dean Brownlie remains strong. Guptill remains a contender too, but needs to decide which format he most wants to achieve in.

The incumbents, and anyone with the drive to join them, might also consider a block of cricket in the sub-continent, South Africa and Australia. Finding a team willing to contract them might be difficult but New Zealand Cricket could surely tap into a vast contact base.

The alternative, as NZC is pushing for, is to get development teams overseas for sustained first-class contests. The subcontinent is useful in this regard because it forces batsmen to learn to play spin. New Zealand needs that because it is impossible to replicate at home.

The same would apply when players adjust to quicker wickets in South Africa and Australia. Given this series has seen the top order exposed by swing, seam, bounce and spin, all these options seem valid.

NZC cricket director John Buchanan has spoken about wanting to focus on ODIs so New Zealand has its best chance of success when hosting the 2015 World Cup. This seems myopic, in spite of yesterday's success.

If you have a great test team, their success tends to flow into the limited overs formats. Buchanan, as a former coach of Australia in their pomp, should know. South Africa and England are good examples at present. The chances of having a low ranking in tests but topping the one-day world are next to impossible.

- Herald on Sunday

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