Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Black Caps need a spin doctor

Brute force batting takes a turn for worse.
Kane Williamson is one of the few Black Caps to play with soft hands. Picture / AP
Kane Williamson is one of the few Black Caps to play with soft hands. Picture / AP

When was the last time a New Zealand test batsman took several paces down the wicket to a spinner or played several sessions with soft hands and his bat and pad technique sorted?

Let me have a quick scurry through the memory banks. Was it Martin Crowe, Glenn Turner, John Fulton Reid or another leftie, Bert Sutcliffe?

Current skipper Kane Williamson has shown that ability and, against spin, is a notch above his teammates, although Ravi Ashwin had his measure in this latest series against India.

Williamson plays with soft hands and likes to work either side of the crease without venturing too far down the pitch, but an inclination to play his favourite cut shot found him out at Indore.

New Zealanders are taken through a cricket nursery where medium pace is the preferred weapon of choice for the bowlers. There are many reasons. It's easier to bowl than spin and is a favoured method in those demanding runs per over stats columns in one-day cricket, while pitches in this country do not inspire spinners.

Captains are often reluctant to use a spin option unless they have someone like Daniel Vettori, who was as frugal as a trundler. Skippers find they can set fields with more certainty to a medium-pacer than a spinner.

It all adds up to an ingrained style for New Zealand batsmen. They play from the crease, where they can judge the line, bounce and anticipated movement from the quicks.

When they face bowlers like Ashwin, whose weapons are guile, flight, spin, variety and close-set fields, they are entering unfamiliar territory.

We hear that as an excuse for the failings of the batting order in the 3-0 test series loss to India. We see it, too, with some of the uncertain block-slog tactics, the front-foot lunge and hard hands pushing at the ball.

We have been hearing it for some time. There were the laments about the Kiwis' inability a few years ago to deal with the Sri Lankan spin attack and how they were bamboozled by a range of finger spinners.

The best players of spin use their feet and are quite happy to keep the score ticking over in singles, as Virat Kohli did at Indore.

In New Zealand, there is a mentality that, if a batsman takes several steps down to a spinner, then he has to lift him somewhere to the outfield. Rarely do we see batsmen skipping down the track then stroking a spinner into the gaps. They seem to favour the Brendon McCullum-style tonk.

The block-bash method of playing spin runs through the longer versions of the game and into more explosive shorter forms. The ability to accumulate runs against spin is an art-form very few New Zealand batsmen have grasped.

Mike Hussey, Shiv Chanderpaul, AB de Villiers, Brian Lara, Greg Chappell, VVS Laxman, Michael Clarke, Doug Walters and Javed Miandad were batsmen who understood how to play spin. They had plans built on great footwork and positive strokeplay.

Kohli turned the strike over against spin at Indore and accumulated runs as he worked the ball around the field, rather than looking for a maximum or playing against the turn.

Whacks over the outfield into the crowd are the stuff of one-day cricket and men like McCullum, Adam Gilchrist and Chris Gayle. They managed it in test cricket, too, but were the exception.

Garfield Sobers, Don Bradman, Graeme Pollock, Everton Weekes and Sachin Tendulkar fashioned incredible test cricket records where footwork and the ground were their allies against spin, rather than indecision and the air.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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