New Zealand tour: McCullum a master blaster but England will call the shots
A big hit in the IPL and a rare star name in the Black Caps line-up could help them capture the imagination for once
The New Zealanders are all here at last. The initial scouting party which landed 12 days ago has been gradually supplemented by the arrival of the star names who have been performing in the Indian Premier League.
And now they are fully assembled, it is still not a prospect to float many boats. No doubt this is grossly unfair – and it may also play straight into the tourists' hands – but to think of New Zealand cricket is to think of an afternoon in dullsville.
It is something to do with the fact that they are a small country at the other end of the world where rugby union is king, that they play so little Test cricket and that they so regularly and so deliberately minimise expectations, which may be equally intentionally misleading.
They are a rare side in world cricket in that they possess some of the best and brightest players around (ignore the official rankings on this) in the same international team as lads who would be considered stars only by their mums. This was embodied years ago by Mike Gatting's quote about another New Zealand team, which had Richard Hadlee as their star, but still holds good: "It was like batting against the World XI at one end and the Ilford Second XI at the other."
Nobody epitomises this more now than their wicketkeeper- batsman, Brendon McCullum. He has a perfectly sound, if unspectacular, record in Test cricket (101 dismissals in 32 matches, a better byes ratio than any other keeper and a batting average of 30) but he has become a bona fide star.
His destructive powers as a one-day hitter were well known, and he has a strike rate of 88 runs per 100 balls. But two things happened recently to elevate him to the stratosphere. First he was signed up by the IPL for $700,000 (£350,000), one of the biggest of the big-money signings. Secondly, he justified the price tag in the much anticipated opening game of the tournament by blasting 158 not out from 73 balls. It was devastating and it made the competition.
Money – and that single performance – have probably changed McCullum's life forever. Everywhere he plays now there will be a sense of expectation. Not that you would know it from his own assessment. "I enjoy playing that style," he said. "For me the satisfaction is that other people enjoy it as well.
"But it comes down to my drive as well, and if there is an expectation now of performances, you've got to have your own expectations as well. I'm sure the money does put a bit of additional pressure on, because you've got to justify your worth, but you've also got to put it out of the mind."
Four other members of the touring party also played in the IPL: the captain, Daniel Vettori, the all-rounder Jacob Oram, the fast bowler Kyle Mills and the batsman Ross Taylor. This would seem to create a rift almost straightaway between the haves and the have nots.
But if anybody can handle it, the Kiwis can. They have always known their place in cricket: more or less falling off the bottom of the globe. They recognised immediately and sensibly that once the IPL started it was a way for a few of their players to earn money that was simply not available at home. If the other players are envious, they know what they have to do.
It will be an examination of the fledgling leadership of Vettori – who was taken to hospital yesterday after cutting his left index finger while fielding against Essex – inevitably under serious scrutiny because of the act he had to follow, Stephen Fleming. Paradoxically, it may be easier for him now that Fleming is no longer in the team at all. There is no doubt that Vettori will have to be every bit as cute as Fleming for his team to push England close (in the Test matches at any rate, the one-day series is another matter).
"They're not too different," said McCullum. "Dan has played a lot of his cricket under Flem as well so I'm sure [Fleming's] style of leadership has probably added to Dan's as well.
"There will be differences. Dan will do it leading from the front in terms of bat and ball. I think Flem spent more time trying to get other guys up to a level where they could be competitive and then follow plans. Dan's strength is he goes out there and takes wickets and scores runs. I think guys are attracted to that and listen to the messages he is able to give because of that. He is an intelligent man."
Vettori, it has to be said, was listening to this analysis, not at all embarrassed. That made a point too. To have any chance, the tourists know they have to be honest with each other, and they seem willing to embrace the necessary candour.
They play England Lions at Southampton in a four-day match starting on Thursday and, if they lose, it will be difficult to regroup. Their batting looks paper-thin and they may have to consider moving McCullum up the order. He looks at home at seven, where he has spent most of his Test career, but he is a better, more instinctive player than those above him.
How many other players in world cricket bat two feet outside their crease to disrupt the opponents, a ploy McCullum launched late last year against South Africa? Actually, on second thoughts, New Zealand may be anything but dull, but that does not mean they will win.
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