Down Under and out

Richard Boock says New Zealand are a shadow of their old mediocre selves
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The Independent Online
England's drawn Test series against Zimbabwe and subsequent 3- 0 drubbing in the limited overs series has not, it must be reported, suddenly made the New Zealand team any stronger.

Maybe when there was the precision of Richard Hadlee, the ego of Martin Crowe and the sheer confusion of Andrew Jones, the New Zealanders were worth a flutter. But now, with Mark Greatbatch frantically searching for the best helmet money can buy, Stephen Fleming still on Green Street, and Dipak Patel far and away the best spinner in the country, you can forget it.

This crop of Kiwis have been going through something of a metamorphosis in that their coach Steve Rixon, an Australian import, has just discovered some of his bowlers actually bat better than his batsmen, and, in a number of cases, his batsmen bowl better than his bowlers. In Pakistan late last year, he cast the personable Auckland doctor Justin Vaughan, a late-order batsman yet to discover his back-lift, into the opener's role, where he partnered Nathan Astle, another to break into first-class cricket as a bowler.

New Zealand's spin bowling responsibilities rest almost exclusively on the shoulders of the former top-order batsman Patel, who at last count had 26 first-class centuries to his credit; the old gloveman Adam Parore is now a specialist batsman, and Chris Harris, an all-rounder in that he cannot bat or bowl (his batting average is 11.23; his bowling average is 53-57), has been a regular member of the Test team for the past two series.

Make no mistake, this is an ordinary New Zealand side who will face a slightly less ordinary England team in the First Test in Auckland, which starts on 24 January. For cricket fans in New Zealand, the prospect of these two teams locked in combat might once have carried all the anticipation of a pillow fight at the elderly citizens' hall, but England's efforts in southern Africa have left Kiwis from Cape Reinga to Bluff fascinated: just how bad are these England professionals?

But as poorly as England performed in Zimbabwe, they at least have specialist batsmen at the top of their order, pace bowlers who can penetrate and in Phil Tufnell a spin bowler capable of taking wickets.

England are missing a quality all-rounder - not that you would notice on this tour, and this is the one area in which the hosts can point to an advantage. On song, Chris Cairns is capable of hammering anything short of top-class bowling, and while his lively seamers do not quite carry the same billing, the mop-topped all-rounder is seldom out of the game - unless he leaves it himself.

That has happened a couple of times, once last year in the West Indies when he walked out of the team after a bust-up with the coach Glenn Turner, and another in Australia three seasons before that when he waited until the morning of the game before pulling out of Ken Rutherford's New Zealand team. For all Cairns' worth, the Kiwi batting line-up must rate several notches below that of England, with Atherton, Stewart, Knight, Crawley, Thorpe and Hussain carrying better credentials than Astle, Vaughan, Fleming, Greatbatch, Parore and Bryan Young.

The Kiwis have just eight Test centuries among them - three from Greatbatch, who still looks shy of anything over brisk medium, and none yet from the left-handed Fleming, who has played 22 Tests. The problem with being a New Zealand Test batsman is that you do not get to face the New Zealand Test bowlers. However, this year's attack, given that Simon Doull's body is holding together, Danny Morrison's groin strain is in remission and Cairns is fit and strong, has a certain degree of balance, if only in a physical sense.

A seamer in the Mike Hendrick mould, the 27-year-old Doull was the pivotal figure in New Zealand's most recent Test win, taking five for 46 and three for 93 against Pakistan at Lahore before Christmas. Sidelined by injury last season, he is probably the only New Zealander capable of running through an opposition's batting line-up.

New Zealand last beat England in a Test 10 years ago at Nottingham, and overall have won just four of 75 encounters. England supporters should rest easy. The fifth looks some way off yet.

Richard Boock is cricket correspondent for the Otago Daily Times and brother of former Test spinner Stephen Boock