Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Midweek Fixture: Broken Black Caps must be rebuilt

By Dylan Cleaver

Kane Williamson makes watching test cricket easy, though the same can't be said for all his teammates. Photo / AP
Kane Williamson makes watching test cricket easy, though the same can't be said for all his teammates. Photo / AP

From the desolation and devastation of the last major Christchurch earthquake sprang Hagley Oval, a beautiful green space that marked the rebirth of the summer game in the southern city.

Just days after another major quake on the fractured South Island, Hagley Oval needs to witness another rebirth: that of the Black Caps as a capable test team.

The test season may or may not start in Christchurch tomorrow. The weather portents are not great but it is events under the ground that are of big a concern as the skies above. When it does start, the Black Caps need to fire.

Hagley Oval was added to New Zealand Cricket's test rotation in a flurry of batting pyrotechnics and has proven a mainly happy place for the Black Caps. They've played four ODIs on the ground - all against Sri Lanka - and won the lot.

They beat the Sri Lankans in a test too, but lost to Australia last summer. The pain of that defeat was only partially salved by Brendon McCullum's explosive farewell - a 54-ball century - to the international game.

If the first test of that series at the Basin Reserve had hinted at it - New Zealand were thrashed by an innings and 52 runs against what we now know to be an extremely limited Australian team - McCullum's farewell marked the official beginning of New Zealand's test slump.

Those ego-pricking losses to Australia have been followed by more desultory efforts against South Africa and India.

For reasons mentioned in these columns, New Zealand have morphed from a good test team to a poor one in 12 brutal months.

Test cricket moves to its own beats and rhythms, however, and losses away are never viewed with the same sort of angst as those at home. In part because it has become par for the course.

New Zealand's regression over the course of three tests against India would have been treated with disdain had the venues been Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, but the fact it happened in Kanpur, Kolkata and Indore spared the team and staff of the appropriate levels of opprobrium.

As for the test game itself, it's in a weird state of purgatory: never has it been so good to watch and so meaningless.

There have been enthralling tests in Rajkot, Perth and Hobart over the past couple of weeks, yet they've struggled to get many humans through the gate. Even the prospect of local hero Cheteshwar Pujara scoring a century at the SCA Stadium only attracted his father, his wife and a few other dignitaries.

This was test cricket's debut in Rajkot, it was against England, who are traditionally a big drawcard, and it featured Pujara and another local Ravi Jadeja. Local officials believe the government's banning of high-denomination bank notes on the eve of the test played havoc with a walk-up crowd, a novel if unconvincing excuse.

Across the Tassie, few have huddled together on a rare occasion when Australia have hosted noted opponents in Hobart.

Five-day cricket has never been better to watch. Positive batting, sometimes too positive, and attacking captaincy has seen draws become the exception rather than the rule, yet the format lacks context and meaning.

Test cricket needs a championship (and no, a mace for the No 1-team is not going to cut it). It needs an independent body to monitor and promote the format. It needs to remove the toss to ensure the home team can't trick up the conditions to suit themselves.

The way the best play the game these days - think Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson, Yasir Shah, Kagiso Rabada et al - tests should be easy to love.

As it stands, they are too easy to ignore.

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A graphic illustration of the struggles of Australian cricket can be seen in the selection of military medium pacer Joe Mennie for the second test against South Africa. Without being too unkind, he looks like a New Zealand-type fourth seamer: about 130km/h and wobbles the ball around a bit in the right conditions. A very un-Australian selection.

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Alastair Cook, fresh off a double of 21 and 130 at Rajkot, is a remarkable cricketer. A throwback to another age, Cook makes runs in all conditions in a manner that would never be classified as eye-pleasing.

The thought of somebody challenging Sachin Tendulkar's 15921 test aggregate once seemed ridiculous, but Cook is a little over two-thirds of the way there (10839), is just 31 and has only 10 batsmen ahead of him.

He doesn't play T20 or ODIs any more either, which will only help his quest. He scores about 80 runs per test. If he plays another 50, even with a bit of regression, that will put him close.

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The romantics would have liked Fiji sevens to win team of the year at the World Rugby awards but all jingoism aside, the right decision was made.

The All Blacks dominated everybody they played outside of Chicago and played in a style that made you ponder why rugby's limitless possibilities aren't explored more often, by more teams. Until a fortnight ago they were being compared with the best sides to have ever played the game.

The above comes with one caveat: the decision will look a bit watery if the Irish manhandle them again in Dublin. It could happen.


THE WEEK IN MEDIA ...

Ireland will be going rugby ga-ga this week, but it's not the true sporting religion. That'd be GAA. It's allure is well captured here.

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