Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Aussie smokescreen fails to paper over the Black Caps' cracks

How convenient. A couple of Aussies lose the plot and, hey presto, it's a handy smokescreen for a dire New Zealand performance over five tests against Australia.

I'm p@##$% off all right, but not at bad-mannered Josh Hazlewood or Steve Smith. The Black Caps were a test disaster, and maybe even distracted by the Brendon McCullum celebrity tour.

Sure, the Aussies take their competitive attitude too far sometimes, but a lot of our blokes haven't taken it far enough.

A potentially great cricket test series, which could have been a landmark, turned into a dud. McCullum is a great Kiwi sports character, but save all the pats on the back until after the series. There was a job to be done, a contest to get into, and New Zealand failed miserably.

The vital combo of attitude, planning and skill was woefully short of the mark. Neil Wagner's second test onslaught was a belated signpost to his teammates, although I'm not sure his short-ball methods will bring sustained test success and it was an ugly, hamfisted way to go about the game, quite frankly.

But his heart and stamina were admirable and there is a skill, of sorts, to what he does. Others, well, not so much. The vaunted new ball attack of Tim Southee and Trent Boult was rubbish. The spin bowling situation is embarrassing. Some batsmen, led by the captain, simply took a punt.

For three big test series, against England once and Australia twice, New Zealand have failed to hit the ground running. McCullum's addiction to slogging and Southee's social league attitude to batting are roll-the-dice methods that don't work. The second innings dismissal of Martin Guptill in Wellington epitomised the problems. Rather than riding out on white charger, McCullum is actually leaving a test mess.

Yes, the lure of Indian T20 money has had an effect and, yes, it has been a long year for some of the players since the World Cup. But if you can't get off the floor to give it everything against Australia, something is amiss. McCullum and coach Mike Hesson's side has been disjointed and looked poorly prepared.

As for the Aussies, they step over the line of acceptable behaviour and need to take stock. But that is nowhere near as annoying as the McCullum-led move to position New Zealand as cricket behaviour-saviours if it leads to the surrender we've just witnessed.

Australia's relentless drive for victory is a huge part of what makes world cricket tick. I love watching them play, and they have been brilliant in this series.

Usman Khawaja is a joy to watch, a lazy-looking left-hander who evokes the great David Gower. The Adam Voges phenomenon is a story in itself. Their fast bowlers were superbly skilled, and one James Pattinson over to Guptill will live long in the memory.

Australia are No 1 and New Zealand a long, long way from that.

***

It's a free world, and Steven Adams has exercised his right not to play basketball for New Zealand. The importance of representing your country in sport is jammed down the throat with almost fascist-like zeal. Good on Adams, I say.

All those anthems and hand-on-heart gestures are supposed to be about national pride, but it looks more like somebody trying to sell us something a lot of the time.

There have been athletes over the years who sacrificed professional opportunities because the national shirt meant more to them - cyclist and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Graeme Miller is a case that springs to mind. But we all have the right to be different.

On a purely practical level, it could be argued that protecting and enhancing Oklahoma centre Adams' NBA career will bring greater rewards for New Zealand basketball than a World Cup or Olympic burst now and then. As for the wider issue, about what real patriotism is about, treasuring freedom of choice must be high on the list.

***

Jerome Kaino must have a terrific lawyer. Having given Pauliasi Manu a decent clout to the swede during a warm-up match against the Chiefs, the rugby beak gave the Blues captain a one-match suspension and ruled the punch unintentional.

For those who missed it, and Manu certainly didn't, it was a sort of open palm upper cut which started around the waist and ended up head high. I'd rate it about as unintentional as Hitler's invasion of Poland.

It was like a bolt from the blue out of the muddy, dirty 1960s. Kaino, an All Blacks legend, is a tough but clean footballer who had a bit of an early-season brain fade. It's not the end of the world, but it wasn't unintentional either unless Kaino has lost control of his limbs.

***

Should track and field become field and track in New Zealand? Apart from Nick Willis, New Zealand's Olympic running hopefuls have long been in the very slow lane. But we've got a more-than-handy bunch when it comes to the field events with the latest and very exciting addition being Devonport pole vault sensation Eliza McCartney. Val Adams, McCartney, Tom Walsh and Jacko Gill are the Awesome Foursome.

- NZ Herald

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