The ludicrous complaint that New Zealand is "killing test cricket" brought to mind Allan Border's crushing one-word answer to a perfectly reasonable question.
It was 1989, the Aussies had already won the Ashes 4-0 in England (with one test washed out); phlegmatic skipper Border was asked if he wanted England to be sterner opposition in the sixth test – to truly test the youngsters the Australians were blooding in that match.
Border's response: "Nope." He and his team were set on annihilation, a scorched earth Ashes born of a resolve to grind the home team's face into the dirt.
If you're wondering why that came to mind, ESPN Cricinfo writer George Dobell's frustrated tirade against New Zealand pitches was at the heart of it: "…if you take out the travelling England supporters, there's a couple of dozen people here today," he said in a podcast. "That is not sustainable and the reason it's not sustainable is New Zealand is creating these pitches and they'll kill Test cricket."
He called the Hamilton pitch a "slag heap" and "shocking" – but his criticism of the state of the wickets prepared here contained no mention of the lack of heart from the English (just as in 1989) or the contrasting show of ticker from the Kiwis.
Exhibit one: Jofra Archer. The young England bowler has not played many tests but had a fine Ashes tournament, revealing himself as a true threat. His work here was limp. Archer is a 150km/hr bowler but most of the time here, he bowled in the 130km/hr range and seemed strangely insipid, as if the unhelpful nature of the pitches sapped his desire. He took 2-209 in the entire series.
Exhibit two: Neil Wagner. Dobell interviewed Wagner after the left-armer had taken his five-wicket bag in the first innings of the second test – his second "five for" in a row.
He has 29 test wickets this calendar year, best Kiwi and in the top 10 globally – rising to No. 2 when it comes to averages and No. 3 in strike rate as he has played so many fewer tests than those above him (Wagner has bowled in seven innings; Australia's Pat Cummings is top with 51 scalps but bowled in 19).
There wasn't one mention in Dobell's piece of Wagner's heart, unflagging energy, aggressive intent and the snarl-cum-celebration that showed just how much every wicket meant to him on batsman-friendly tracks. The two scenarios were striking in their contrast.
Some years back, at an Auckland Plunket Shield match, I watched a former England county pro inspect the admittedly questionable pitch. One of his teammates nudged me and said: "He's thinking there's not much in the pitch for him". Sure enough, the player involved was out cheaply.
That kind of not-today-I'll-wait-for-better-conditions syndrome used to be common in county cricket. It often seemed alive and well in this rather average England team – some were almost languid at times, as if they'd looked at the Mt Maunganui and Hamilton pitches and mentally shrugged. The New Zealanders dug their trenches and dug deep.
India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa have always prepared wickets to suit. New Zealand's low, slow pitches have always been a home team advantage in exactly the same way, a factor in five straight home series wins. Why would they surrender that – and what's wrong with shot selection and gutsing it out?
Conditions can hardly have been a surprise to Dobell and his mates. In 1980, the West Indies toured here with scary names from the hall of fast bowling greats: Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft. New Zealand won a controversial series partly because, just like Archer, the four quicks did not adapt to the pitches.
England don't generally doctor their pitches, but they use the Duke ball which swings more in English conditions than the Kookaburra ball used here. However, Border's 1989 team were targeted by county sides offered cash prizes if they could knock over the Aussies. Genuinely fast bowlers playing county cricket then - including Wasim Akram, Patrick Patterson, Devon Malcolm and Ian Bishop – repeatedly bounced the Australians on deliberately prepared pitches, leaving an angry Border determined to gain revenge in the Ashes series.
So what is "killing" test cricket? Falling crowds is one thing, falling TV audiences another. England is among the worst offenders as the sport shifted from free-to-air TV to pay TV. In the 2005 Ashes series, nine million people watched free-to-air. In this year's World Cup, at times the TV audience shrank to 500,000. Who's killing test cricket, George?
Modern crowds are time-poor and (other than diehards) can't or don't sit through five days. Some think attention spans have diminished, the burger-and-chips mentality better served by ODIs and the meaningless but lucrative T20s. The world test championship is a bit of a farce; few people even know it is under way. Cricket is becoming the game that ate itself.
New Zealand in 2019 has played four test matches so far. Australia have played 10, England 7. Trying to pin the blame on the Black Caps is like criticising a dog's tail for wagging; control belongs to the owner, not the appendage.
Rescuing test cricket is much more complicated than slagging off a test-playing country not granted many tests.