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Lance and the decline of Aussie sport

I would normally be using this space as an opportunity to fire off on the Black Caps but to be honest I think the Black Caps and I need some space right now. Anything I write this week would just be seeping with rage, won’t be well thought through and would be pushing my own agenda – then again when it comes to the Black Caps everyone else in the media is pushing their own agendas so why shouldn’t I? In the near future I might write something entitled “Five things New Zealand Cricket can do that makes the Black Caps better and has nothing to do with who the captain or the players are” because my contention is that the terrible performances by the Black Caps are just the public face of the terrible performance of the entire New Zealand Cricket organisation over the past ten years.

As a quick aside I was quoted in the Otago Daily Times just before Christmas making that same point – because as you know I am an AUTHORITY on these matters.

As you wait for that enlightening piece I do have a couple of thoughts on Lance Armstrong and Australian sport that I would like to cover.

Oprah still has a show?

She does. Who knew? I am not sure it has been on New Zealand television since Tom Cruise was bouncing on a couch trying to convince the world he wasn’t sexually attracted to fish. These days Oprah has been replaced by more culturally relevant and important shows like Maury and Jeremy Kyle.

So Oprah still has a show and being internet savvy enough to find my website there is no chance that you have missed the news Lance Armstrong is appearing on Oprah’s couch this week.

People have speculated on what he is going to say (most likely a soft admission of guilt with some sort of “level playing field” justification). Some people have suggested some leading questions Oprah should ask, that she certainly won’t, and probably aren’t that important in the big picture anyway (does anyone other than the Sunday Times give a crap if he sued them to shut them up? And isn’t the answer obvious?).

As much as I do appreciate that Lance is finally going to front up for cheating during his career this interview is going to be an unsatisfying experience for pretty much everyone in the cycling and sporting community that wants to see a contrite, genuine Lance Armstrong confess all his sins.

We want to hear all the sordid details, we want to know everyone involved and especially the administrators still involved in cycling and we want him to apologise to all the people he trashed to keep his secrets. Chances are we get none of that.

As a primer here a couple of things anyone watching the interview should keep in mind:

  1. Levelling the playing field is not a valid justification. What Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Michele Ferrari and others were engaged in didn’t level the playing field, it completely removed the playing field. It was the most sophisticated, professional and brazen doping programme in existence that went significantly further than others were either prepared or able to get away with. It had nothing to do with levelling the playing field and everything to do with winning.
  2. Lance didn’t just cheat he did it while being a vindictive, sanctimonious asshole who was quite content to ruin the lives of anyone that challenged his sainted persona. The position Lance is now in is the collateral damage of his own decisions for which he deserves no sympathy and Oprah shouldn’t extend any. There is no way that this interview could be considered complete without a shout out to the number of people Lance Armstrong screwed, an abbreviated list of the people is – Christophe Bassons, Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Filippo Simeoni , Greg LeMond, Prentice Steffen and the numerous riders coerced into doping such as David Zabriskie – don’t expect them to get a whole lot of coverage.
  3. Lance Armstrong’s charity work is important and relevant but it will not warrant the excessive time it probably gets. Lance was (and probably still is) a hero to many millions of cancer survivors and their families, I have no issue with that then or now, but his philanthropy is intrinsically linked to his cheating and his status as the Cancer Jesus. Outside of questions around letting the foundations down I don’t think it is a service to give him much time to talk about all the positive things he has done. Besides we all know he did some stuff with cancer I don’t think we need to hear about it anymore.

I will be tuning into watch this interview – assuming it is on New Zealand television – but I don’t expect to feel in anyway satisfied by what I hear. Lance does things because it suits Lance and I can’t see this being any different.

One more thing why did I spend the whole time calling him Lance? In case you were mislead by that I can confirm I don’t actually know him. I’m sorry if I mislead anyone. See how easy it is to apologise and not mean it? I did it right then.

The end of Australian gold and the return to canary yellow

The year is 2000 and Australian sporting success is overwhelming and in your face (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…..). The Sydney Olympics were very successful for Australia (58 medals, 4th on the medal table). The Australian cricket team was one of the great, if not the greatest, teams of all time in the midst of a 16 game test winning streak and the current World Cup champions, an effort they repeated in 2003 and 2007. The Rugby, Rugby League and Netball sides were all World Champions. Though they didn’t have any tennis major winners in 2000 they did have Patrick Rafter win slams in 1997 and 1998 and Leyton Hewitt was to win his first in 2001. Though the Aussies weren’t really up to much in the Golf Majors they had got the stink of Greg Norman choking off their clothes.

Fast forward 13 years and the gloss has come off the Australia World Sporting Power plaque. The London Olympics provided Australia’s worst medal haul (35 medals, 10th on the medal table) in 24 years with the much heralded swimming team returning a solitary gold medal while many favourites choked their way to minor places. The cricket team doesn’t even enter the debate as being the top side in world cricket, in any of the formats. The Rugby, Rugby League and Netball World Cups are all held by New Zealand and the Aussie netballers lost to some country called Malawi in something called the Netball Fast 5 World Series which I assume to be important because anything we win is. Leyton Hewitt got married to an actress and has been terrible ever since (don’t get married guys) and although Sam Stosur won the US Open in 2011 she has crumbled under the expectations of the Australian public ever since while the top male is just as well known for his fast car as his fast serve. In golf the stink of Greg Norman choking has now been replaced by the stink of Adam Scott choking (admirably assisted by our own Steve Williams).

Looking back the only tangible improvement in Aussie sport is that the Socceroos are significantly better than they were (ranked 36 right now compared to 73 at the end of 2000), although the best young player in the A-League is a Kiwi. They also have a recent Tour de France winner in Cadel Evans who is still competing at a high level. I might also give them Mark Webber even though he missed his chance to be a Formula One world champ and is now a support player. Outside of those three what is Australia better or even equal at compared to 2000? Certainly nothing important that I can think of.

I don’t point this out purely because I am jealous of Australia’s past success (I am) or because I like to gloat while the Aussies are in the dumps (I do) but to ask the questions what the hell happened to Australia? Is it just coincidence? Is it just a bump in the road? Can they fix it? Are the next generation of Australian athletes soft and expectant of easy success that can come with being raised in a world where Aussies could win anything?

I don’t know. But I do know if New Zealand reached the heights Australia did and then subsequently plummeted the way Australia has I would be pretty angry about it. But to listen to some Australians you get the sense they don’t even realise how far they have fallen – just tune into the Aussie cricket commentary and you might not even realise how mediocre the Aussies really are.

New Zealand is a nation of being good at some sports, bad at others and average at others but at least we are World Champs in something that the Australians would like to be. Back in 2000 we were a “Nation of Chokers” and now we are a nation of World Champs in sports we care about (and we even got further than Australia in the last cricket World Cup too). So maybe somewhere out there is an Australian who might be a tiny bit jealous of us.

Nah. As if that is ever happening.

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Messing with Moller Nature

So Chris Moller felt the need to call a mystery press conference that had two purposes – first apologise to Ross Taylor and second make it clear that calls for a review of New Zealand Cricket were missing the fact that a review had already been completed and a summary of the recommendations was released to the media two months ago.

I am ignoring the first aspect, which was 30 seconds of a 40 minute press conference, because it really isn’t the big issue to come out of the press conference. The big issue was that NZC felt the need to call a press conference because over the past month many (most notably here) were calling for a review that they should have known had already happened. On the 23rd of November Mark Geenty wrote a story in which Dion Nash called for a review of the governance of New Zealand Cricket despite the fact that this review was completed and a summary of the recommendations was announced in a media release on the 12th of September – two and a half months before Geenty’s story! And Geenty’s story doesn’t mention this once. Seriously.

Maybe it is time the spotlight was turned onto the national media who not only completely failed to report something that, I believe, was fairly important, they also continued to press the issue that a review that had already happened needed to be done. Maybe it is about time someone did the job they are paid to do? Not only is it clear that people in NZC can’t do their jobs the national media that are supposed to give us the information we need to make informed judgments can’t do their jobs either! It is a great scenario.

The national media continue to promote the idea that NZC’s issues all stem from recent Board decisions or that this is a Hesson v Taylor thing. It isn’t. This is emblematic of every big decision taken by NZC for the last 10 years, in fact you could argue that NZC just got lucky with the Stephen Fleming and Steve Rixon moves which pointed us in the right direction because the decisions in the years prior to that were pretty bad too (hi Lee Germon). This is why a review of the governance was so important and why the national media have dropped the ball by falling to even know it had already occurred.

The seeds of Ross Taylor’s demise were created almost ten years ago as NZC lurched from one change to another with little thought for  the consequence those changes would have. Each decision that they made since 2003 created another domino to subsequently fall over. Let’s cover them:

  1. John Bracewell is appointed coach in 2003. Bracewell is a fairly successful limited overs coach but the team slide from third in the test rankings to eighth by the time Bracewell quits.
  2. Bracewell alienates a number of senior players – notably pushing Nathan Astle into premature retirement. He is also ultimately responsible for the test captaincy being removed from Stephen Fleming and his early retirement in early 2008. Despite the signs being that Bracewell wasn’t working out he was still given an extension by Martin Snedden part way through his tenure.
  3. Dan Vettori assumes the captaincy after the 2007 World Cup and slightly later Justin Vaughan is appointed as NZC’s CEO as teflon Sneds is off to run RWC 2011.
  4. John Bracewell finally resigns in November 2008. Andy Moles is appointed as the new Black Caps coach. Moles’ international resume was limited to an acrimonious spell with Scotland but he did have some success with Northern Districts and we are talking about the least attractive job in world cricket so why not give it a try?
  5. It didn’t work. Moles’ tenure lasted less than a year with rumours suggesting he couldn’t tell the difference between the on and the off side. Mark Greatbatch was formally made the Black Caps coach in early 2010. Vettori is given an expanded role with a finger in every pie.
  6. Greatbatch’s tenure was even shorter than Moles’ as he was pushed aside for John Wright in late December.
  7. A few months later John Buchanan was appointed to the newly created Director of Cricket role with Wright reporting to him and oversight on selection.
  8. After the 2011 World Cup Dan Vettori stands down as captain. This was a long signaled decision by Vettori who had indicated he only wanted one four year run as the captain.
  9. That long signaled intention was giving little heed by NZC who did not have the foresight to have a logical successor in place. After a damaging presidential style showdown Ross Taylor is appointed the captain over Brendon McCullum in July 2011.
  10. Kim Littlejohn is appointed the National Selection Manager in September 2011 with the responsibility to implement John Buchanan’s new selection vision. Mike Hesson is overlooked for this job as well as the Team Manager role. A few months later David White is appointed to replace Justin Vaughan as CEO.
  11. Amid growing tension around having to report to John Buchanan John Wright announces he will not be seeking re-appointment following the West Indies tour in August of 2012. The situation is widely viewed as NZC backing John Buchanan over John Wright.
  12. Following John Wright’s departure Mike Hesson is appointed coach after a search provided lackluster candidates. Hesson had some success as a limited overs coach with Otago but no first class success and his only international stint is an aborted stint with Kenya. Hesson has a well known relationship (not sexual) with Brendon McCullum.
  13. In December 2012 Hesson and Taylor’s relationship blows up and Taylor is removed from the limited overs captaincy and is belatedly offered the Test captaincy in a backfiring public relations stunt. Not surprisingly Taylor declines and also withdraws from the tour to South Africa fearing that he will continually have to worry about whether Hesson was peeing in his cornflakes every morning. McCullum is appointed captain in all three formats.

Ten years worth of changes and none of them producing anything positive whatsoever and each decision impacting somewhere else. Although this brings us to today chances are we aren’t quite finished yet:

  • In the captaincy change David White and the Board support Hesson’s man over Buchanan’s in a clear flop of the Wright/Buchanan situation – odd considering if you were going to back a coach it would have been Wright over Hesson right? Further de-powering Buchanan and Littlejohn weeks beforehand David White made the back to the future decision to appoint Glenn Turner and Martin Crowe (who stood down at protest to the treatment of Taylor last week) as talent scouts which seems completely unnecessary as selector’s intuition makes up just 5% of the selection pie. Oh wait. You mean they aren’t planning on using the selection pie anymore! Buchanan and Littlejohn’s departures are likely to be imminent.
  • Now that Hesson has his man in charge he gets to play world number one South Africa away and then home and away to world number two England. Results aren’t improving regardless of McCullum’s positive impact as a captain and the public still bitter over Taylor’s demise ask and receive for Hesson to be stood down as coach. McCullum’s role as captain is also subject to some speculation as NZC goes back to the mediocre coaching well.

This is why it is so important that a review was conducted – none of these issues have the same person’s fingerprints on them – it is a collective decision making failure. It is bigger than Moller and the board. Bigger than Snedden, Vaughan and White. Bigger than Buchanan. Bigger than Bracewell, Moles, Greatbatch, Wright and Hesson. Bigger than Fleming, Vettori, Taylor and McCullum. It is all of them and none of them. You can’t blame one without blaming the other and it is no wonder the sorry mess that the Black Caps are in.

The public and press outcry for more blood to be spilled continues to completely miss the point – it doesn’t matter who the chairman, board members, CEO, coach or captain are if collectively every organisational decision is reactionary or fails to understand consequence or lacks a clear long term direction. Different people have filled each of these roles and each of them have contributed to getting where we are at. Putting in place systems and processes to prevent these on-going debacles is the important thing not looking to continue the cycle.

All I wanted out of the press conference today was the announcement a full review of NZC was going to be commenced. The fact that a governance review had already been completed exceeded my expectations. I would much rather give the opportunity for those recommendations to be followed before I start calling for Moller, White or Hesson’s heads to roll because all heads rolling does is create another opportunity to make a decision that keeps the dominos falling for another ten years. It isn’t just NZC that needs to learn this lesson – apparently it is the media and the public as well.

One hell of a Hess

So we will know tomorrow how royally New Zealand Cricket has screwed the pooch on this whole captaincy debacle. Every time I think about it I get angry – hence the second post about it this week. I just can’t imagine a worse way to handle the situation or a worse time to pull such a stunt. Like I mentioned earlier in the week last year’s selection of Taylor as the captain took about two months and now the decision on his future is being made in one week. WTF is going on here? I just don’t get it.

There are no positive outcomes from this monkey shit fight, as I see it this is where we are at:

  • Taylor retains the captaincy in all three formats. The coach and captain paper over some cracks only for the issue to blow up again in a couple of months.
  • Taylor keeps the test team while McCullum takes the limited overs team. The coach and test captain paper over some cracks only for the issue to blow up again in a couple of months and in the meantime McCullum and Taylor are subject to endless speculation based on whichever side won most recently.
  • Taylor rejects or is not offered the test captaincy but still goes on the Tour to South Africa. The team continues to perform poorly and the backlash from the public is fierce and the target is Brendon McCullum and it is insinuated that he has this relationship with the coach by anonymous bloggers.
  • Taylor rejects or is not offered the test captaincy and decides to withdraw from the Tour to South Africa. The weakened Black Caps batting line-up is further exposed by the best bowling attack in the world. The team continues to perform poorly and the backlash from the public is fierce and the target is Brendon McCullum and it is insinuated that he has this relationship with the coach by anonymous bloggers.

Maybe there are a couple of other options and potential outcomes here, but I repeat, are whatever marginal gains achieved by changing the captaincy worth the further turmoil to the team, the public relations damage and complete embarrassment and possible alienation of our best batsman?

Because it is fun to put the blame on people let’s do a survey to get a gauge on where the readers put the blame on this situation. First a little bit on some of the protagonists.

Whether you think Rosco is up for the job or not he has been treated pretty appallingly in all this and that has got to be acknowledged. Would anyone blame Taylor if he just took his toys to the various T20 leagues around the world and made stacks of money with none of the pressure? It is probably exactly what I would do – who needs the aggravation? Apparently Taylor isn’t a good communicator and results haven’t been stellar even though individually Taylor has been one of the stronger performers.

I almost feel as sorry for McCullum as I do for Taylor. He is finally about to ascend to his dream job and the public are already leaping out of the water with his seal carcass locked in its jaws (too much Shark Week). The difference McCullum’s captaincy might or might not make to the team’s performance is unlikely to see a significant turn-around in the short term which means his tenure is going to be extremely uncomfortable. All the while the pressure on his own form is ratcheted up another six notches. Maybe I am misreading his potential impact and his gambling instincts are going to lead the team to a new era but I am not going to hold my breath. I think it is unlikely that he has been agitating and scheming for the captaincy but he isn’t exactly shutting it down either.

Mike Hesson as had an absolute shocker here, there is no avoiding it. I have no doubt he is just trying to do what he believes is best for the team. I don’t buy into the fact he just wants his buddy in charge, he just believes McCullum is the best man for the job. That being said his sense of poor timing is impeccable. He has very little coaching success, even less public recognition until now and his anointed successor hasn’t hit a century in plural number of years. As an international coach he isn’t even on the bike yet let alone being in training wheels. Ask Joe Couch if they would prefer Taylor or Hesson to stick around and Joe Couch probably asks who Hassan is.  Why on earth he thought it was a good idea to make a power play against Taylor at this early point is beyond me. He might win this battle but the war for the hearts and minds is only just beginning and it isn’t going well.

The coaching appointment panel had to make the decision on which mediocre coaching candidate was better than the other mediocre coaching candidates. This was further complicated (or simplified) when every other candidate pulled out or was allowed by NZC to say they had pulled out – presumably so they could avoid the stench of being associated with a failed NZ coaching application. Hesson was the best man for the job or the only option left depending on your level of pessimism. The panel probably hoped that Hesson, Taylor and McCullum were professional enough to work together but they must have had some concept of the poop in the face potential here. In hindsight the only way this appointment gets any worse is if they gave the job back to Glenn Turner.

Apparently the senior players are with McCullum which is odd because I didn’t realise we even had any senior players. The captaincy isn’t a Miss Congeniality contest and many of the best (including two of our best) weren’t well liked by some or all of the other players. That being said not being respected is a whole other thing and the captain has got to have the respect of his charges. Considering Taylor is the only one scoring runs with anything approaching consistency you’d have to wonder what it is not to respect. The only thing I can think of is that he screwed things up for Tim Southee when he was about to get some international airline action and if that is the case I accept Taylor has to go, not cool Ross. Not cool.

New Zealand Cricket sucks from top to bottom. When you have a whole series of stories in the Herald titled the “Shame Game” slamming you for the various aspects of your suckiness this sort of thing is just par for the course. Establish a crap culture and crap happens – it should be the slogan at this point. Seriously I have no idea what they can do to sort it – it just seems like it is hundreds of little things.

John Buchanan and Kim Littlejohn are always candidates in the blame game. The coach reports to them and they are the ones responsible for over-empowering a novice head coach still in his early years at Hogwarts. And they are Australians. Never forget that.

So who you got? Feel free to add some thoughts below and vote for as many or as few of the options as you think are applicable.

To everything – turn, turn, turn

If there is an organisation that does a worse job basking in their limited success than New Zealand Cricket I would love to hear about it.

After spending barely a week living in warm, glowing glow of a rare overseas win against quality opposition New Zealand Cricket is thrust back into their continual cycle of change – change in the board, change the CEO, change the selectors, change the coach, change the captain, change the players and on and on and on. Emphasise change but never fix. Shift accountability but don’t address the issues. Throw some shit against a wall and hope that something hits the light switch.

Just over a year after a selection panel went through an extensive process to appoint the new captain NZC is considering undoing that on a the recommendation of the last man standing coach and are apparently set to make that decision in the space of about four days. Amazing, it is like they don’t even realise they have an image problem. Don’t want Joe Couch to complain about player power ruining the game? I know, let us change the captain and give the people the under performing guy who they think has been agitating and undermining the current captain for the last year! It solves everything!

Hands up if you think the appointment of Brendon McCullum is going to see significantly better performances from the Black Caps? If your hand is up bring it down swiftly and hit yourself in the balls. You are kidding yourself. It will just be another change. Results could be better or worse but that has less to do with who the captain is compared to say the quality of the players and the application applied by them. I don’t see how changing the captain will all of a sudden mean that we avoid a catastrophic second innings collapse. It is nonsense. It is making a drastic change for at best marginal improvement.

I don’t see myself as being in Team Taylor or Team Mac. Neither of them are ever going to be confused with Steve Waugh. Chances are we wouldn’t even be having this debate if there were any other automatic selections in the team (seriously, what would Tim Southee be like? I am willing to go there). My opinion is the most important role of the captain is to do their job scoring runs or taking wickets – Taylor is scoring runs and making more meaningful contributions than McCullum and until that changes I see no value in entertaining the thought of a captaincy change. The reality is that McCullum’s position and role in the team are the things that should be in question.

Considering McCullum leads with his mouth and not his actions and Taylor leads with his actions but not his mouth maybe the Black Caps should be taking a leaf out of the Chiefs’ book and appoint co-captains! If they are going to screw around why not just pull out all the stops, it isn’t like they aren’t already making a joke of themselves or anything. Seriously how entertaining would dueling fielding placements be or two pairs of new gloves being sent out to batsman with contradicting instructions? I say roll the dice!

By tomorrow afternoon we will know if there are any going to be any immediate changes for the tour to South Africa but even if there isn’t you have to believe that the situations of Ross Taylor or Mike Hesson (or both) are untenable for the long term, so nice work on that guys. Just another day and another debacle for NZC.

Speaking of debacles the New Zealand Herald has an interesting series on the state of cricket in New Zealand. I do bristle a little when I read talk of the whether the team is the worst ever (though the Herald do qualify that statement) because they aren’t even close and it just encourages people to be stupid. The Rutherford and Germon eras between 1993 and 1997 were the worst. Rutherford 2 wins, 11 losses and 5 draws and Germon 1 win, 5 losses, 6 draws were both terrible, take your pick, there is no wrong answer. If you check out the numbers the difference between the Taylor era and our most successful periods – Howarth, Coney and Fleming – isn’t the win percentage it is the loss percentage meaning that in those eras we were managing to hang on for draws far more frequently than we have under Taylor. We are just far more inconsistent right now. Not outright terrible though.

This quote from Murray Deaker in one of the stories is also very enlightening “We’ve actually only ever had two patches of acceptable results – the 1980s, the golden era, and a smaller patch under Stephen Fleming.” and then he goes on to note how annoying the ignorance of the average New Zealand cricket fan is – couldn’t agree more Murray and if it sounds familiar it is because I said exactly the same thing at the start of my post a couple of weeks ago. The last sentence of that post also said “The last time I launched on anything approaching this sort of rant it was after the first test in Brisbane last year. Just saying.” Which must make me some kind of cricketing Rainman or just someone that is excellent at hedging their bets, I think Rainman though.

Hot button issues – IRB, Cameron and Shoulder Charges

I have some thoughts on three of the week’s hot button issues. The fourth hot button issue – the debacle of the Black Caps – has already been covered, in extensive detail, so check that out further below.

IRB gives pleasure to Stephen Jones

So the IRB has bowed to the pressure of a few newspaper stories and some tweets and decided to review the Adam Thomson suspension. I implore New Zealand rugby fans to set up twitter accounts so next time an All Black has an offense committed against him we can all twit-bomb the IRB with calls for lengthy suspensions – it clearly works so we wouldn’t be real fans if we didn’t.

I agree with the sentiments that the suspension was a week or two light. But is a week or two light really worth the IRB opening this entire can of worms, smearing it over their bodies and having that mongrel dog Stephen Jones lick it off? I really don’t think so.

Let’s face it people are biased. New Zealanders hate when Richie McCaw gets mugged and violated and the culprits face little, or no, punishment whatsoever. The English hate when the All Blacks mug and violate other teams and face little, or no, punishment whatsoever. Every other nation has the same variations on the same thing. Apparently we are all victims.

Everyone is biased. It is the whole reason that an independent judiciary exists. Certainly those judicial processes can create oddly harsh or oddly light sentences but that happens in every sport and you could say the same thing of a court of law. It has been happening since before Aristophanes was writing plays (that is for you Victor Vito).

Of course the IRB should be working to improve the judicial process to avoid those odd decisions as much as is humanely possible. They should not be setting the precedent of re-litigating one particular case just to appease a biased horde of journalists and twitterbags.

Just mark it down in the over following column labelled “awful decisions from the IRB”.

Cameron losses opportunity to become champion of something, something

I couldn’t be happier that Shane Cameron lost. I have nothing against him. I have nothing for him either. He is just an average competitor in an average sport. The reason I am glad he lost is I didn’t want to have to put up with the media hyperbole over him being a “World Champion”.

Boxing has five separate organisations (WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO and IBO) that confer a world champion status to each weight class. It is a bit like Belarus establishing their own shot put World Championships so they can restore Nadia Ostapchuk’s rightful place as a world champion. Then me establishing a shot put World Championship in which I have a specific exemption to compete in the Women’s class and my only other opponents are primary schoolers and then restoring my rightful place as a World Champion. Then….ok you get the point – every other legitimate sport in the world does not confer multiple world champions for doing the same thing, at the same class, at the same time, it isn’t credible. So what does that make professional boxing? You got it – not credible.

It can get a little more credible when the same boxer holds multiple belts – like in the heavyweight class where Wladimir Klitschko owns most of the belts. But that is not the case in the cruiserweight division where different guys hold all of the main titles and the IBO title is somewhere near the bottom of the pecking order. Shane Cameron might have been the IBO World Champion, a title conferred by an organisation set up in the late 80’s with all the prestige a recently established organisation attracts. Never in a million years would he have been THE World Champion but that is how it would have been sold.

Sky television seems to do a great job of hyping up fights as a big deal when really they mean absolutely nothing. I have no idea why the main stream media sees fit to jump on the bandwagon but I suggest we dodged a bullet by not having to listen to them crown Shane Cameron as more than he is.

The death of rugby league

I don’t want to say too much about the banning of the shoulder charge – every living player has already used every exaggeration possible to over state the case for the shoulder charge and I can’t possibly compete with that. But I should touch on it.

I am conflicted because I do enjoy a good shoulder charge but I also recognise the dangers of concussions (search “NFL concussions” if you need convincing). The fact that all the players want to keep the shoulder charge is completely irrelevant – it is no different from a cyclist not having a choice to wear a helmet or not – the people directly impacted don’t always know what is best for them. The NRL can’t just ignore that every single medical person involved in league wants the shoulder charge gone because of the undue risk of injury.

That being said I would have really liked to have seen if harsher penalties for the failure to execute the tackle correctly would have made a difference. Most of the negative reaction seems to stem from the fact that it is a pretty big leap to outright ban something that people enjoy about league. I have to wonder if a more gradual move in that direction would have been better and if that step failed then I’d suggest only the masochist meatheads and white trash would object to an outright ban. It seems we will never know.

For the record I don’t believe it will impact league’s popularity in the slightest.

 

I am not happy with the Black Caps

Before I set off on what will no doubt become an epic 5,000 word rant I think it is important that I cover a few things up front.

We, the New Zealand public, are pretty ill informed on cricket. We like to think we know our stuff but the reality is we make scorecard and highlight judgements. I watch every second of every All Black game, I watch a handful of SuperRugby games a weekend, I watch non-All Black test matches between the big nations and a sprinkling of ITM Cup games. I love cricket more than I love rugby and yet I would be lucky to say I watch 30% of most Black Caps tests and maybe the same for a limited overs game. Most of the general public’s reaction and opinion isn’t based on a real knowledge of what is happening and to some extent my opinions aren’t much different – I am just far more perceptive than the ordinary Joe on the computer.

We also have little appreciation for our place in world cricket. We are a little guy and as such having a world ranking around 7 to 9 is actually about where we fit. My dream is that a couple of times a generation we can assemble a group of players that can challenge the better teams on a consistent enough basis that we climb into the top three of the rankings. We had that group of players in the mid-80’s and in the period between the late 90’s and early 00’s – take out those periods and we have always been a below average to terrible team. You have got to apply some sensible expectations and a lot of people don’t. I do not expect this team to win a lot right now – I noted as much in my preview months ago – my expectation for this season isn’t wins and losses it is development and my biggest problem is I see zero development.

I couldn’t care less about limited overs cricket. I enjoy it but a week after the winning or losing I probably don’t remember. It just isn’t important to me. The only exception to that is World Cups. I would love me some World Cup success just because it is a chance to be world champion at something.

Based on the above accepted fact – that we are almost always a below average to terrible team I think you can write off two common reasons for our lack of success. 1. Coaching. 2. Selection. We have tried a lot of different things and none of them find sustained success. Of course I think both of those things could have been, and could be, better but whenever I read or hear a comment that says we never should have got rid of Wally Lees or John Wright or hired John Buchanan I switch off – blaming the coaching and selectors is like blaming the oven for burning your pizza. I’d explain the analogy further but it makes me too hungry, the point is as a small cricketing nation we certainly need to find any little thing to give us an advantage and selection and coaching is a big part of that but if the same guys are going to be picked regardless of the selection methods and those same guys aren’t going to respond or listen to the coaches regardless of who the coach is then just maybe it isn’t selection or coaching that is the problem?

With that let’s move on to the fact that I am pissed off. I am sick and tired of seeing the same performances time after time from the Black Caps. The same lazy dismissals. The same inability to win sessions. The same inability to take advantage of situations. The same deluded hope continually crushed. And the fact that it represents no real improvement from what happened last time. It kills my enjoyment and I am pissed off about that.

So what are the problems? The batting seems like a decent place to start.

Mac and Rosco

I hate picking on McCullum and Taylor because it is blasé at this point. The problem is they are our two key players and their performances make it hard to defend them. If they were making virtuoso solo efforts while their teammates let them down (see Burt Sutcliffe who averaged 40.10 in his 42 winless tests) then it might be easy to defend them. Sadly they are leading the charge back to the pavilion with rash shots and lapses in concentration and it is a standard others merrily follow.

Still before I launch my attack I think it is important to list the players with more test hundreds than Taylor’s 7 and McCullum’s 6 – Crowe (17), Wright (12),  Astle (11), Fleming (9), Turner (7), Jones (7) Congdon (7) and a few others tied with McCullum on 6 including JF and JR Reid and McMillan. Taylor has our 6th highest average and McCullum the 16th. It is important to highlight this as some people romanticise their memories of the past when the truth is the dead don’t improve – Taylor and McCullum are legends of New Zealand cricket by any measure. My problem with Taylor and McCullum isn’t that they aren’t good it is I am convinced they can be much better.

McCullum and Taylor are the sacred cows of NZ cricket and the there are two more in the process of joining them at the yard – Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson. These are the players that are “undroppable”. On the face of it nothing seems out of place with the names on our list but it is four batsman and the batting is the worst facet of our game!

Having undroppable players isn’t unusual – South Africa has about nine of them right now, while the best Australian and English teams had about 12 or 14 undroppable players.

The thing about undroppable players is they have to be motivated by something bigger than keeping their place. Undroppable players have to be driven by an unquenchable thirst for individual milestones (like Geoffrey Boycott) or an insatiable hunger for victory (like Steve Waugh) – they constantly get the best out of themselves because every delivery, every session, every innings, every match is integral to achieving those goals. Our better teams had a fair share of undroppable players and it was clear those players were motivated by those same things – Fleming winning, Hadlee wickets. I am not convinced that Taylor or McCullum have the same sort of hunger.

The Black Caps are often accused of just not caring enough. It is obvious to me that Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum care more than anyone. This isn’t about caring. It is about what brings out the best in players and I think we have to start questioning whether undroppable status is bringing out the best in any of these players.

The balance between bringing out someone’s best and tipping them into crippling insecurity is a tight rope best illustrated by poor Matty Sinclair’s test career and the 2012 iSinclair 2 James Franklin. These guys have had to look over their shoulders basically their entire careers and they have sunk under the pressure. On the flipside the great Australian team was built on the back of the weight of players pushing at the door to national selection. For some players selection pressure works and for some it doesn’t.

Taylor, McCullum and increasingly Guptill seem to always produce a performance that does just enough to ensure their spots aren’t up for grabs. Over the past 12 months and excluding performances against poor opposition Ross Taylor racked up the following scores – 14, 0, 6, 56, 44, 48*, 44, 17, 18*, 45, 21, 60, 0 , 2, 7, 113, 35, 9, 18. In my estimation that is three valuable contributions in 19 innings – 56 in the second innings in Hobart, 48*in the first test against South Africa and 113 in the second test against India – there is too much coasting and non-performing in there and it isn’t acceptable.

McCullum is much the same, his run over the same period – 34, 1, 16, 12, 48, 58*, 61, 5, 31, 0, 25 84, 0, 19, 22, 42, 0, 23, 68, 19. I will give credit for three valuable contributions – 58*in the first test against South Africa, 42 in the first test against India (he was sawn off by a poor decision so I will give the benefit of the doubt) and 68 in the recently completed Sri Lanka test. You might think it odd that I omitted his highest score in the period but the effort against the West Indies was undone by an unnecessary dismissal in what should have been a match saving innings. Again, too much coasting and non-performing.

If our two best players are leading they aren’t doing it by example. I see no reason why making the threat of losing their spots real will undo either of them. McCullum in particular is a fighter, one of the few times his spot was in question was when he dropped the gloves to become a specialist opener and he responded with an emphatic double hundred against India. It could be pretty superficial but making these guys actually fight for their spots could serve as a good reminder of what it is they what to achieve for New Zealand.

Stop mucking around with the batting line up

Slightly contradictory coming straight out of my calls to give McCullum and Taylor a rest but am I alone in sometimes wondering what the hell is going on with the batting line up?

I understand that we do not have a deep pool, in fact it is a drying, muddy puddle which means we always struggle to maintain a balance between picking the best five or six batsman or picking the best players for each role in the order. We have veered uncontrollably into picking the best six batsman regardless of their roles and the side effects are an uncomfortable bout of inconsistency mixed with maddening collapses.

My understanding is that Taylor bats 4. Guptill is now an opener. That is about it. Everyone else seems to be a floater subject to the whims of whoever decides these things. McCullum has run the gauntlet of 1 all the way to 9 in his career. In fact we should make sure he goes out and completes the set sometime. Can someone make this happen? For the record his highest average is at number 2 (43.73) while most of his hundreds (5) come at number 7. He is also better at 3 then he is at 1. It is all very confusing.

A few examples of the batting order madness in the past year (I have ignored the impact of the nightwatchman):

  • Young Kane Williamson has had 11 innings at number three and 10 innings at number five. Batting at number 3 and number 5 are completely different skills and I don’t think Williamson is done any favours being yanked around, just let him grow in one place, ultimately he is a number 3 but right now I think he is a 5 or even better a 6.
  • Part of moving Williamson around was accommodating our usual opening partnership madness. The first four tests we had Guptill and McCullum. Then Rob Nicol came in and bumped McCullum to three. A couple of tests later Nicol was dropped and replaced by Daniel Flynn who was an infrequent opener in domestic level but given the job anyway. He stayed there for a couple of tests and then was replaced by Watling for a solitary test with McCullum remaining at number 3. Finally in India the original pair of McCullum and Guptill were restored with former opener Daniel Flynn re-reinventing himself as a number 5. Wow. I am dizzy.
  • The number 5 position has been occupied by Watling, Ryder, Williamson, Brownlie and now Flynn.
  • Watling has played three tests. Specialist bat at number 5. Specialist wicketkeeper at number 7. Specialist opener.

Seriously what on earth is going on and what sort of candy floss brained thinking is all this? My suggestion – ignoring the whole drop Taylor and McCullum section that led into this.

Guptill and McCullum open. It isn’t completely ideal as their styles give too much opportunity for us to end up three or four down in the blink of an eye. My preference is for a slow scoring wall to hold up one end for as long as possible and minimise the risk of a wicket freefall but I am not quite sure that one of those guys exists right now. For now these two are our openers.

Number 3 is Daniel Flynn who seems to have an ideal temperament to either face up to the new ball or take advantage of the older ball.

Number 4 is Ross Taylor as it is and shall always be.

Number 5 is Jesse Ryder who is the ideal player to come in when the bowlers are tiring. Should the Ryder absence continue then the yanking around is kept to a minimum – someone slots into five so no one else moves. Most likely that player is Dean Brownlie.

Number 6 is Kane Williamson who is a good enough player to deal with the second new ball, you know assuming we get through that tough period between 1 and 80 overs, while he also benefs from not having to carry the heavy load. There is a lot to be said for the Ricky Ponting treatment.

Successful batting line ups are not subjected to continual changes and they certainly aren’t subjected to the multitude of changes the Black Caps have been making – settle on a line up, stick to it and if you need to make changes don’t re-juggle the whole damn thing to accommodate them. Sometimes we re-juggle and sometimes we just slot someone in but it always seems to be at the opposite of the times you’d expect. Just stop it already.

Getting yourself out rather than being dismissed

Some boffin out there will be able to run the numbers but my instinct tells me our batsman are world leaders in getting themselves out. The innocuous deliveries that dismiss our batsman are almost laughable and I swear if we made bowlers actually have to work to take wickets we would be a significantly more competitive team.

Going back a year to the first test against Australia in Brisbane is a great example of how the Black Caps can flatter bowlers:

  • McCullum slashed a ball to Warner at point off a wide delivery from Starc.
  • Guptill drove a ball off Siddle he didn’t need to play at and the edge went to Haddin.
  • Williamson did that god awful shuffle against Lyon and popped it up to Khawaja.
  • Taylor goes for a square drive off Pattinson and chops the ball into his stumps. I am too lazy to check but I think this was the one millionth time Taylor has done this. They should have started dropping balloons onto the ground as he walked off.
  • Jesse Ryder’s dismissal is best described in Cricinfo’s live commentary “The very epitome of a hare-brained shot. Short, miles wide outside off and he doesn’t bother getting across for the cut. Just reaches out and smashes it in the air, the balance all awry, straight to gully. We have seen some poor shots today, and by the looks of it there’s more to come.” *sigh*
  • Vettori runs himself out. In the nineties no less.
  • Young pushes with hard hands and edges Siddle to Clarke’s soft hands.
  • Bracewell gets done by a legitimately good delivery to a number 8.
  • Southee lofts Lyon straight to a fielder.
  • Chris Martin misses a straight one that doesn’t turn. His bat and pad are approximately 4.5 metres apart.  End of innings.

The second innings saw the Australians actually bowl pretty well to reduce us to a horrific 5-28 but we still weren’t shy about helping them. The result was a crushing defeat that it seemed we would never recover from. Until the next week when we didn’t throw away quite as many wickets as the Aussies did and snatched a famous, and yet increasingly flukey, victory.

The Black Caps do this all the time. Good batsman really make a bowler work to take their wicket but we just gift wrap ours far too frequently.

Inability to face spin

If I had to specify another key issue with the batting it would be the same old story about our inability to combat spin. It is a problem that will never really go away. We don’t have the sort of conditions that produces quality spinners. Right through from when we first play cricket it is the same – a spinner coming on is an opportunity to score runs and more often than not a spinner gets wickets when the batsman is trying to hit him out of the park. We are just never exposed to genuine attacking spin so by the time players get to test level  and have to face it they only have two options – attack or ride it out – neither are sustainable options. There is no real solution to it (just as there is no real solution to India struggling when they play on green seamers) but we could certainly be a hell of a lot better with what we are trying to do.

Herath is a good player who has had a great year but more often than not he just outsmarted our batsman and did so in a fairly basic fashion. He set Taylor up with a couple of balls turning away before slipping in the top spinner that trapped him in front and Flynn was dismissed shortly after a field change which was either genius or just Heals wandering down to have a chat with Warnie lucky. The Black Caps have got to do a better job of understanding how spinners are attacking them and especially when those spinners are fairly run of the mill spinners.

My kingdom for a world class keeper

Kruger van Wyk continues New Zealand’s tradition of journeyman wicketkeepers. I like Kruger. He is gritty and hard working but he also averages 24.35 and doesn’t add the runs or resistance we really need. But nothing new there. In between our three great wicket keepers we have had a procession of mediocrity – Tony Blain, Lee Germon, Robbie Hart, Gareth Hopkins, Reece Young. Australia went from Healy to Gilchrist to Haddin to Wade (with some one off players like Manou) in the same period.

My rules for selecting wicket keepers are this:

  1. If the player is over 32 then they don’t get many chances.
  2. The keeper must be a contributing factor with the bat – either because they can hang tough and save games or because they can blast quick scores and turn games.

Pretty simple. I think Kruger has had his chances to prove he could do number two. It doesn’t seem that he can so it is time to move on. I have noted before about New Zealand’s inability to develop young keepers – primarily because we have players like Hopkins, Young and McGlashan holding down a spot for a long period of time which increases the standard of cricket but doesn’t give opportunities for up and comers – but all of them are nearing the end of the road.

The players I would move on to are:

  1. Luke Ronchi – Kiwi born but Aussie raised Ronchi has played some limited overs cricket and is hardened from years off Sheffield cricket. On the old side but still younger than Young or van Wyk.  Let’s just take the plunge and see what we have. What is the harm?
  2. B.J Watling – I wish we could work out what it is Watling is going to be. An opener, a keeper, a specialist batsman. I think his future lies with the gloves and I would rank him about equal with Ronchi in the pecking order. I wouldn’t haggle over either of them as long as we agree it is time to move on.
  3. Derek de Boorder – the Otago custodian (big fan of that description) is a similar age to Watling which means more long term upside and he has a decent first class average in the high thirties. Probably going to deliver a minimum performance equivalent to a Young or a Kruger but with the opportunity to actually progress. Doesn’t it make more sense than picking the guy that won’t be around long term?
  4. Tom Latham – I like Latham but he is getting the Brendon McCullum introduction to international cricket via the short format stuff. Pending failures of the above guys he looks the most likely to actually be our next big time keeper/batsman.

And all my possessions for a freak spinner

I love Daniel Vettori but even before he was injured he was just not a wicket taking option anymore. Jeetan Patel can prop his stats up on tail end wickets but it doesn’t help us when we need early fourth innings wickets. Tarun Nethula never managed to find the confidence of his captain or coaches and if he isn’t going to play in India or Sri Lanka where is he going to play. Todd Astle was an opening batsman who converted to bowling spin and although I hope the reverse Richardson is a success my suspicion is it won’t be.

Honestly the cupboard is bare. We have talked about how the lack of suitable pitches for spin impacts the batsman so it is pretty obvious it impacts the actual spinners that come through too. By the time players hit senior levels spinners that can slow scoring rates is more highly valued then ones that could take wickets. When Vettori hit the scene his greatest strength was that he hadn’t lost the desire to attack and take wickets. The proliferation of limited overs cricket could be the factor that snuffed it out but it seems to be beaten out of him now.

The other problem we have is that many or the world’s really successful spinners are somewhat unorthodox. The most unorthodox thing spinners in New Zealand learn is some pace variation. Everything else is pretty much coached out of guys by the time they are of age. In conclusion someone finding a freak and hiding them in the shadows before unleashing them on domestic cricket would be really great, I’d appreciate that.

Onwards to Africa

After Sri Lanka we are off to South Africa, home of Ken Rutherford’s greatest leadership accomplishment (first test 1994/95) and his greatest embarrassment (everything else about that tour e.g. Paarl incident and first team to lose a three test series after going up 1-0 since 1888).

We will either be facing a fired up South African side itching to avenge a sub-standard effort against Australia or a confident South African side fresh from trouncing Australia and primed to destroy the lowly Kiwis. There is not much of a silver lining here. We are going to lose and we are probably going to lose heavy.

Based on that isn’t it a pretty good time to send a message to Taylor and/or McCullum? I suggest it won’t happen but from my convenient chair that carries no repercussions for making outlandish claims why the hell not shake things up a little? It (hopefully) can’t get any worse than day three in Galle.

I present some alternatives to Taylor and McCullum:

  • The test match specialists – Josh Brodie and Jeet Raval. New Zealand doesn’t pick this sort of player until he hits 30 but these two have fairly similar records to each other and to Tim McIntosh who had his moments in a Black Cap. Both have played about the same number of matches, average around 35, have four hundreds while Brodie has one extra fifty. The comparison to McIntosh is a little uncanny – he averages 34 and has a very similar hundreds/matches and fifties/matches ratio. Rather than aspiring to be the next McIntosh could one of them be the next Richardson? Even a poor man’s Ed Cowan would be fine. What is the harm here, it isn’t like they will be facing the world’s best pace attack – did you see them in Brisbane? Hopeless. The perfect team to blood a young opener against. I have never actually seen eiother of them bat so I could be way off but then again I have never been resposible for selecting a Black Caps team that crapped the bed so my record is spotless.
  • Redemption of Ryder – Jesse is a confident guy and you just need to have a quick look at his first class average this season to know he has his swagger back. Let’s just tap into it.
  • The shooting star – I don’t know if it is fluke or a pact with the devil but this is Carl Cachopa’s most recent first class games – 179* and 1, 105 and 29, then back to last season 111 and 38, 151 and 4, 28 and 108. So after not scoring a century in his first 19 first class matches he now has five in the last six (the one not mentioned he didn’t bat). He averaged 14.55 in his first 19 first class games and 83.78 in the last six. Seriously what is going on there? Furthermore he was born in South Africa and England’s success was built on South African imports and we could do worse than be a poor man’s England. Furthermore he has two other brothers that play first class cricket so if he works out we could stock the team up with Cachopas just like how the Kenyans stock the team up with Tikolos, Obuyas and Odumbes!

Seriously what is the worst that will happen here if we drop McCullum and/or Taylor for one of these guys? I see some upside but not a whole heap of downside here. Light a fire under Mac and Rosco while we also get a chance to see someone dismissed in a way that isn’t a slog sweep top edged to deep mid wicket or deflection into stumps. Worst case scenario someone is heading back to first class cricket with a pair. Big deal.

And one more thing. I would go without a spinner unless the wicket absolutely required this as a necessity. I just don’t see the value that any of our spinners bring. Our only strength right now is our pace bowling – Southee, Boult, Martin, Bracewell, Wagner and even Gillespie all bring something to the table and an extra one of them is a lot more useful than a spinner that isn’t going to take wickets. For once we seem to have some credible depth with the raw pace of Adam Milne and Mitchell McClenaghan so that is exciting. The only issue is that this time last year I was sitting back and noting how exciting I was with our batting prospects and that has gone down in flames since then.

I reiterate that I don’t expect the Black Caps to rip off 16 consecutive test victories but I do expect to see progress. We have a young side, one that could remain intact for the next five or six years, but no one is going to want to stick around to watch the same old Black Caps defeats and abject performances for the next five or six years. It just stops being fun and this Black Caps team seems pretty close to not being fun. I don’t pay to have women tie me up and whip me while I struggle to remember the safe word and I am not going to pay to watch the Black Caps do the same to my love of cricket while I struggle to remember the safe word.  I know the safe word and I swear to god I will say netballfastfive quick as a flash if they can’t sort their stuff out.

So about 5,000 words and barely a mention of barely competent administration, the absolute debacle of the old school/new school selection team mix which you just know isn’t going to end well and the fact we can’t retain a coach for longer than a couple of years doesn’t even get covered? I guess that is 5,000 words for another time.

I will finish with a statement that seems to be an oxymoron – enjoy the second test!

Footnote: The last time I launched on anything approaching this sort of rant it was after the first test in Brisbane last year. Just saying.

The five reasons that Ali is still an All Black

I haven’t written for quite a while. Between a lack of inspiration and a new baby I just haven’t had the motivation. But with the announcement of yet another All Black squad featuring Ali Williams and the muted reaction to such an outrage I thought I’d share my top five reasons why Ali is still an All Black.

  1. No one holds a tackle bag like Ali Williams.
  2. The ABs have been working on a new set piece play where the hooker overthrows the jumper and the ball goes to the opposition. This play only works when Ali is the jumper – he gets the timing involved.
  3. Now that Steve Hansen has to be all polite and sh*t with the media he needs someone who isn’t afraid to mix it up with that clown Jim Kayes.
  4. Jason Eaton won’t shave those damn sideburns!
  5. The Blues were a really good side this year so it is important that they get decent representation in the national side. Hadleigh Parkes was gonna be the guy but then he sold us out and went to South Africa.

Feel free to add your own suggestions – chances are one of them will be right because none of the explanations provided by Steve Hansen are even remotely plausible.