Sticky wicket for Kiwi centenary celebrations

Tony Cozier, in Christchurch, on hosts embarrassed at their own party
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The Independent Online
In what should be the biggest season of its rather nondescript life, New Zealand cricket has found itself in something of a mess. It is the 100th anniversary of the game's organisation here and the Board is celebrating it with an extended party on the field of play. But the many old friends invited will find a host embarrassed by some untimely shame and scandal in the family.

The West Indies are already here for three one-day internationals and a couple of Tests, the first starting on Friday. Australia, India and South Africa come in a fortnight for a centenary tournament of one-day internationals and South Africa, for the first time in 31 years, and Sri Lanka play subsequent Tests. But the extravaganza has been overshadowed by the controversy and intrigue that have followed the recent tour of South Africa.

New Zealand's young team were so overwhelmed there by a combination of the celebrated hospitality and the euphoria of an unexpected victory in the first Test that they did not win a single one of their six matches in the Mandela Trophy one-day tournamentagainst the home team, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and comfortably lost the last two Tests to surrender the series. The consequences were swift and dire on their return.

The coach of four years, Geoff Howarth, resigned, jumping before he was pushed, and the manager, Mike Sandlat, was replaced. Almost simultaneously their one world-class batsman, Martin Crowe, ruled himself out for six weeks with a recurring knee injury that has recently reduced him to a hobble and could end his career.

Within days, to use the captain Ken Rutherford's colourful phrase: "The poop hit the fan". Confirming rumours of excessive high living on tour, New Zealand Cricket, the game's ruling body, suspended the fast bowler Chris Pringle on unspecified disciplinary charges and Stephen Fleming, Matthew Hart and Dion Nash, three of their most promising players, all in their early 20s, for self-confessed marijuana smoking at a party.

Typically NZC did not embellish its suspensions with details, but these were forthcoming when a specially commissioned and supposedly confidential report by its director of cricket, Rod Fulton, was leaked to the press.

Fulton wrote that "regular drinking until 2am was a feature as the players savoured the social opportunities". He slated Howarth for failing to "maintain discipline, enthusiasm and general team harmony", said Rutherford's personal example off the field needed improving, and charged that many players did not respect the NZC or have pride in representing New Zealand.

The press has revelled in the story and lawyers, spotting quick bucks and publicity, have threatened suits left, right and centre. Nash's mother, Dot, has got into the act by claiming her son has been penalised for his honesty and there were five more carousers and pot smokers who did not own up. Everyone who is anyone has had their say and the issue has generated even more excitement in usually sleepy New Zealand than the current tours by Cliff Richard and Pat Boone.

Public comment has ranged from condemnation to sympathy - most significantly from New Zealand's most celebrated cricketer, Sir Richard Hadlee - to amazement that the matter was not handled by team management on the spot without having to reach the publicdomain.

"New Zealand cricket, its followers and the Kiwi sporting public in general must look to forgive and forget the transgressions of Matthew Hart, Dion Nash and Stephen Fleming," Hadlee wrote. "All three are young people and, while they have made a mistake,you can't hold that against them for life."

The fans, seeing the lighter side of it, have made the most of it with their banners at the grounds. "Bring back Dion Hash", pleaded one. "Marijuana is bad for the Hart", declared another.

But, like sporting publics everywhere, they are disillusioned with defeat and it is hard to see New Zealand, modest in strength at the best of times, quickly recovering from this trauma even though the three offenders have served their sentence and are included for Friday's Test.