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Five ways for New Zealand Cricket to improve the Black Caps

October 29, 2013

Back in April this year I wrote an unposted blog that looked at five areas I felt New Zealand Cricket needed to do to allow the Black Caps to deliver on their potential. Those five areas were:

  • Allow New Zealand A players to get meaningful experience
  • Encourage format specialisation
  • Fix the contracting system
  • Commit to a group of players and develop depth
  • Ex-players should be used sparingly

Just under 11 months after Hesson and Taylor threw NZC into disarray it is probably a good time to revisit what went unpublished to see what is happening.

New Zealand A

After getting $2m in ICC funding over the next three years NZC have finally been able to make the New Zealand A programme a meaningful experience to the players (and coaches) involved.

Prior to this the A system had been a waste of the meager resources it received as it didn’t prepare players for international cricket and frequently involved players with little likelihood of ever playing international cricket. In 2012 the A team hosted India A at Lincoln in September which I sure was of huge benefit to all involved. In other years they might travel as far afield as Darwin, a location that they will play a lot of international cricket at in the future.

A trip to the sub continent to play India A and Sri Lanka A featuring players all likely to feature in the Black Caps in the near future is a huge step forward. And half the squad was under 23 years of age and likely to be worth the investment of such a tour.

With the winter tours and the increased prominence the A side were given domestically, they had two T20’s and a first class game against England last summer, I think NZC is well on the way to addressing this issue so they get a big tick there.

Format specialisation

Mike Hesson’s comments about format specialisation pleased me significantly even if they were just restricted to talk about the bowlers. Even prior to these comments it had started to become clear that this policy was in place just by looking at the composition of the test and limited overs bowling units. Test – Bracewell, Boult, Gillespie, Wagner and Sodhi (Bruce Martin  was in the side to field at fine leg). Limited overs – McClenaghen, Mills, Milne, Southee and McCullum.

Tim Southee is the only bowler capable of thriving in all three formats and if he was fit his inclusion in the test squad would represent the only player on both lists.

Compare this to as recently as last summer when Trent Boult found himself playing T20 cricket despite the fact he has never been a particularly good T20 player and is generally ill suited to the game. I also suspect that not too long ago Mitchell McClenaghen’s limited overs efforts would have instantly been rewarded with a role in the test team, that might come but right now everyone is best served if it isn’t rushed.

On the batting side of things there are a number of players that appear across formats – McCullum, Taylor, Williamson, Rutherford and Anderson. I would suggest that Anderson is filling the Jimmy Franklin all-rounder that probably isn’t good enough to be in the test team role but is perfectly adequate for the limited overs stuff. A role also been held by Grant Elliot and Colin Munro and at some point in the near future by Jimmy Neesham. Hamish Rutherford has a fairly appalling domestic limited overs record which on the face of it doesn’t warrant his inclusion in the limited over squad. He looks a lot like an aggressive test opener that can’t convert it to aggressive formats (see: Slater, Michael) though perhaps he deserve a bit more of a chance.  Williamson too isn’t much of a T20 player and I wonder if he is best served not being involved in that format. So that leaves us with Taylor and McCullum and on a bad day I might say that McCullum’s place in the test team is assured by his captaincy rather than his batting.

On a domestic level there are a number of players that would be best served concentrating on a particular format. Jeet Raval is a great example of a player that would be best served concentrating on first class batting and getting ready to be a future test opener than mucking around playing T20 cricket.

Contracting system

If format specialisation suits NZC better than a jack of all trades does then the contract system needs an overhaul.

The current central contracting system awards 20 players contracts based on their likely contribution to New Zealand cricket over the upcoming 12 months. It does have different weighting for the likely contributions in test, ODI and T20 (which can vary depending on if it is a World Cup year) but ultimately it rewards players higher if they play in all three formats of the game and with Hesson alluding to format specialisation playing all three formats won’t be possible for a lot of bowlers.

The system doesn’t make any sense in the current environment and it is modeled on the Australian system and if you are copying Australian cricket you might not be doing it right. Earlier this year they announced a list of 20 contracted players that excluded four Ashes players in favour of limited overs tradesman and test will neveragainbes like Xavier Doherty. My gut feel is the most important thing in Australian cricket in 2013 was/is back to back Ashes series but according to the central contracts list it is the T20 series against India.

I am sure I will lose some people here but I have a proposed solution. I would rank 17 players in each format with a player getting the contract aligned to their highest rated format rank. Obviously there will be a number of players that are included in more than one list so using Brendon McCullum as an example – he would be the number one ranked T20 player, the number two ranked ODI player and the number six based test player so he gets awarded the contract in the format he is highest ranked, being the T20 contract. The unclaimed contracts (i.e. the test and ODI contracts) are not reassigned because the wage assigned to a position on a percentage of available pool basis rather than dollar value. NZC pays out the same dollars regardless of how many contracts are assigned which hopefully avoids NZC just picking the same 17 players for all formats to save money, because you know they would do that.

My rough list contains 30 different players filling the 51 available contracts and half of the players are picked only in one format. The biggest beneficiaries are players like Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, Dean Brownlie and Nathan McCullum that are rewarded for high contributions in one format while the other big beneficiaries are younger players like Matt Henry, Jimmy Neesham, Colin Munro, Ish Sodhi, Corey Anderson and George Worker who sneak onto the tail-end of a format where under the old system they would likely miss out.

The only downside is that NZC would likely have to expand the funds available to pay the players to avoid the current funds being over diluted. Still I think that could be managed, it isn’t like central contracts are a huge windfall to the players to start with.

I have not heard any talk whatsoever about a change to the contracting system but you would think it is a natural progression from the specialisation talk.

Committing to players

Todd Astle, Colin Munro, Rob Nicol and Brett Arnel played two or less test matches over the last two years. Graeme Aldridge, Colin de Grandhomme, Michael Bates and Luke Woodcock have all played limited overs cricket in recent times. I have to ask myself – what was the point? Most of these players offered little, produced little and their future contributions will probably be little. So what was the point?

Some opening batsman we have flirted with since the tour of South Africa in 2007  – Jamie How (19 tests), Matt Bell (18), Aaron Redmond (7), Craig Cumming (11), Michael Papps (8), Tim McIntosh (17), Rob Nicol (2). Every single one of them under achieved at international level – now is that the fault of them or the fact it keeps happening is it something about our culture? I don’t know but something is happening.

Of all these guys that were discarded only Bell and Cumming are really old (and retired) at 36 and 38. How is 32, Redmond is 34, McIntosh is 33, Papps is 34, Nicol is 30. If Michael Hussey was a Kiwi we would have played him for a couple of years in his late twenties, as an opener, he would have averaged 25 and that is it, career over, opportunity missed.

Jamie How last played a test when he was 27. His domestic form has fluctuated from average to very good. Coincidentally Martin Guptill is 27 and is, for the test side at least, on the outer. You might say that Martin Guptill is a much better player than How but take out performances against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and Guptill’s average is basically the same as How’s. I think Guptill has much more to give in test cricket but past history suggests he will be discarded very soon and that is it, opportunity missed.

I am not saying you make a habit of over committing to players but too much decision making is based on outcome not process and too many players seem to pay the price for it.

Following on from my change to central contracts unless it is absolutely necessary (injury or catastrophic form) those contracted players are the players you use for the 12 month period. At least give the players on contracts the opportunity to spend a decent run in the set-up.

What changed for Tarun Nethula to get a central contract in April 2012 and then be overlooked for the test series in Sri Lanka in October 2012? The answer is that Nethula was playing and being exposed to the Black Caps coaches who discovered he wasn’t good enough and Todd Astle leapfrogged him on the basis of not playing or being exposed to the Black Caps coaches which is an explanation that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  If a guy was better than someone else in April chances are they are still better in October, especially if that other guy hasn’t even been playing. And if he wasn’t better than your process sucks.

The pretty large flaw in my position is that under my recommendation it is possible that neither Peter Fulton or Hamish Rutherford would have been playing against England last summer and that worked out pretty well. But I still think some long term thinking would probably serve us better than short term dice rolling.

Ex-players

Ex-players are happy to promote the myth that ex-players should be running the game because it is ex-players that benefit. If it was true that only ex-players understand how to run a sport you would think it would be common across the sporting world that ex-players would be in charge. However, around the sporting world it is relatively rare to find ex-players in high level management or governance roles. Having played the sport just isn’t a highly valued management or governance attribute and something tells me that the Parker group don’t know something that the rest of the sporting world doesn’t.

Since 2001 an ex-cricketer has filled the role of CEO. As an important role you would think that a CEO would be just as accountable, perhaps more so, for the decline in standards since about 2001 but somehow it is solely on the board? Martin Crowe is perfectly happy calling for the other Board members to resign but David White, an ex-cricketer, even more hands on with the Captaincy saga than the board? Nah, free pass.

Three of the recent board appointments (Snedden, Hadlee and Allot) have been involved in senior roles with NZC but unsurprisingly they are completely blameless for our decline and instead are being lauded as the saviours of cricket in this country.

Bruce Edgar returns to New Zealand and because his CV is loaded with relevant experience (Gordon’s junior academy! Coaching New South Wales level two coaches! 39 tests and 64 ODIs!) NZC falls over backwards to find a role that suits him rather than find the person that best suits the role. Board member? High performance manager? Selector? National Selector? It didn’t matter just get him in there! He was gritty in the 80’s remember!

Many people scoffed when a former national bowls manager got the National Selector role but there is nothing to suggest Edgar is any more qualified for the role. And yet apart from some small pockets of resistance there was nothing but celebration of Edgar’s appointment because he was gritty in the 80’s.

It isn’t to say Edgar won’t do a fine job it is just his appointment has a lot more to do with being an ex-player than it has to do with his suitably for the job. And that is the issue here, without being a former New Zealand cricketer it is unlikely that any of these guys get the jobs they now have and based on that are they really the best people for the jobs?

Overall I think NZC has done some good things over the past six months and I am encouraged by the general direction they are taking. But since this is still NZC we are talking about I am sure there are some setbacks just around the corner.

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