Proteas are the Kiwis' guinea pigs

New Zealand cricket is undergoing something of a revolution and it falls to South Africa’s Proteas to test the strength of the Black Caps’s “new approach”.

Rather than merely “upscaling” the way they train and prepare, the New Zealanders have gone further back on the road to international cricket and have started with a brave new approach to selection.

With the greatest of respect to that country’s playing resources, brilliant cricketers are few and far between. The best schoolboy sportsmen are, more often than not, tempted away to play rugby—and various other traditional Kiwi pursuits involving water—which leaves a large number of modestly skilled but eager and willing cricketers.

Some progress well and become what commentators call “genuine international standard”—a backhanded slap in the face for the remainder. But it is true.
New Zealand’s domestic cricket is full of a similar standard, which is where the “brave” part comes in.

New Zealand Cricket appointed a chief selector whose business background is in investment banking and whose sporting background is in bowls and baseball. Apart from playing a bit of “social cricket”, Kim Littlejohn was nothing more than a fan before his elevation. To say that eyebrows were raised is to put it mildly.

But it did not matter because his job was not to select cricketers purely on playing ability and statistics—it was to select them more on personality and character. New Zealanders have always been known for their tenacity and fight; they are not a nation of quitters, so Littlejohn’s job has been to maximise that quality, rather than find it, and look for cricketers who thrive on pressure rather than those who merely cope well with it.

The result has been 29-year-old Andrew Ellis, plucked from apparent obscurity for a debut, and 28-year-old Rob Nicol. Neither has a good first-class record, let alone a stellar one. And then there is 21-year-old ­left-arm spinner Ronnie Hira, also given a T20 chance despite not ­making the statistical progress hoped since he played at international under-19 level.

It is an approach to selection that Gary Kirsten admires very much. Fortunately, convenor Andrew Hudson shares a similar intellectual space, which could signal the beginning of an exciting new era in which conservatism is ousted in favour of adventure, defence gives way to attack—and reputations count for a great deal less than they did in previous eras.

Kirsten may be “popular” with the players and universally respected, but he also has a simple philosophy about the job—the team always comes first, without exception. The notion that he might “favour” the elder statesmen, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher, because he played alongside them in national cricket is hilariously misguided and ought to have been corrected now by Smith’s omission from the T20 squad. Is he still the man for the one-day international top order?

Is Albie Morkel the right man for the end-of-innings heart-stopper? Is there a place for Johan Botha’s defensive off-spinners?

And if not, is Robbie Peterson then the best attacking spin option? Is Imran Tahir not the most attacking spinner in the country?

“I do believe that, as a principle in modern one-day cricket, you need to take wickets to control the run rate,” Kirsten said. “If you’re playing on a half-decent wicket against a decent batting team they’re going to make 300 unless you take wickets. And that number is just going to get higher as the game continues to change. I don’t believe you can get away with just trying to bowl dot balls and yorkers any more.”

He admits, however, that too much “attack” can make for a messy scorebook. “Maybe there’s still a place for a dot-ball bowler or two. We’ll see.”

But the T20s are a different matter. Wickets are always useful, of course, but if each bowler can deliver eight to 10 dot balls in his allocation of 24, then that team will almost certainly win. Explosive batting is a prerequisite, naturally, and Cobras opener Richard Levi is certain to be given a chance to establish himself alongside Hashim Amla in the 20-over XI. His brilliant innings of 63 from 32 balls in Wednesday’s warm-up match certainly had locals taking notice.

Too much has been made of the possibility that the locals might resort to the sudden and unexpected verbal and even physical intimidation that has served them successfully against South Africa on two occasions—in 2004 and in last year’s World Cup quarterfinal in Dhaka. Fair enough, sledging will always be a “good story”.

But the best “sledge” on tour so far actually came from a South African and was delivered so smoothly that it has gone largely unnoticed by the media. When Kirsten described the tour on arrival as “very good preparation for the tour of England later this year”, you can be quite certain that it did not go unnoticed by the Black Cap players. In fact, it may well provide coach John Wright and Littlejohn with the basis for their selection.

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