01 June 2008

Indigent cricket cousins

English comedian David Mitchell, the co-star of ‘Peep Show’, ‘That Mitchell And Webb Look’ and the movie comedy Magicians has commenced as a regular columnist for the Guardian, and in his first article, ‘Ho-hum Kiwis could try haka to make us care’ he addresses the current New Zealand cricket tour of England. He summarises the attitude adopted by most English cricket fans to the touring New Zealanders:

We don’t hate or despise or fear, let alone respect them; we disdain them. You can tell from the number of times you hear an England supporter say “New Zealand are actually a very good side”. There’s a silent “considering none of us really give a shit whether they live or die” coming afterwards.

It all boils down to a fondness for great rivalries and a sense of dramatic narrative that runs through English sport, Mitchell says.

It’s not an age-old clash, England against New Zealand – there’s no ancient rivalry, not much post-colonial bitterness, no history of war, it’s just two countries that both think the other is kind of fine. In the rugby they’ve managed to pep it up with the haka and other Maori stuff but in the cricket there’s just no story. And people crave stories in sport – a proper narrative like in a film…

The article is illustrated by a fetching cartoon by Matt Johnstone of a pair of pasty-faced New Zealand cricketers leaping and gesturing on the pitch, performing a haka while a bemused England batsman looks on.

I know what sort of reaction a column like this would foment in the easily-excitable New Zealand sport media and blogosphere – all are eager to leap into the reflexive and defensive “anti-Kiwi bashing” mode and would reel out irate columns decrying the arrogance of the English cricket media and how this will all play into New Zealand’s hands by lulling the English team into a false sense of security. (Welsh columnist Stephen Jones often achieves the same effect with his rugby writing).

But I’m not about to write that sort of blog, mainly because whether New Zealanders such as me like it or not, Mitchell – who is a witty cove, and cricket writing needs more of his ilk – has a valid point about the relationship between English and New Zealand cricket. We shouldn’t get up in arms over the overtones of disdain in the relationship – they are only reflecting both the broader gaps in cultural links between the two countries, which have been widening since Britain’s imperial mindset ebbed away after World War Two, and in the long-remembered aftermath of the UK joining the Common Market in 1973, thereby single-handedly demolishing the greatest pillar of New Zealand’s agricultural export economy.

The cricketing relationship between England and New Zealand is also dominated by the real differences in cricketing culture between the two sides. In England, performances in test cricket are the holy grail, and this is reflected in both the international test rankings (in which England is currently fourth, as opposed to New Zealand's seventh ranking) and the batting and bowling averages, in which England has a clear superiority over nearly every facet of the visiting New Zealand team. This doesn’t necessarily mean that England deserves to be regarded as ‘the better team’ on every occasion, or that England will necessarily win every test they play against New Zealand – look at the Hamilton test in March where New Zealand caught England on the hop and beat them by 189 runs. What it does mean is the experience and devotion to test cricket is generally reflected in England’s performances against weaker sides like New Zealand.

New Zealand, on the other hand, has bent with the wind and focused its efforts on the shorter forms of the game where the skills required in test cricket are less influential. Indeed, New Zealand has a clear advantage over England in the one-day form of the game: it’s currently ranked third in the world, while England is only sixth. In recent years New Zealand has embraced one-day cricket, while England plays fewer games:

Decade NZ ENG
1970s 20 46
1980s 126 120
1990s 191 135
2000s 204 186

This is partially a reflection of where the money lies – in New Zealand it’s impossible to fill cricket grounds for test matches, aside from the smaller boutique grounds adopted for the recent England tour. The big crowds and the big money for New Zealand Cricket are only generated by the shorter games, in which it’s possible to sell thousands of tickets and huge lakes of the sponsors’ beer to boozy sun-addled fans.

Mitchell makes a good point about the bilateral cricketing relationship between the two countries. In England there is an overwhelming sense that the New Zealand tour is a necessary interlude before the real business of the summer, the tour by South Africa. Perhaps you could substitute the word ‘chore’ in place of ‘interlude’ for many commentators and England fans. Just try reading the cricket articles in the daily newspapers before a New Zealand match – you’ll often find the column focuses exclusively on the England team and its well-moneyed scions, and there’s next to no discussion of the New Zealand team or its selection and prospects. The relationship, at least as far as the English press go, is not particularly close. As blogger Hamish McDouall has pointed out, ‘Scyld Berry called us “indigent cousins”, but I guess when your parents have given you a name with no vowels, you’d start off pretty embittered’.

Contrast the English view with that of the New Zealand team. For New Zealand cricketers, a tour of England is a career pinnacle. The chance to stamp your name on the visitors’ honours board at Lord’s is highly sought-after. The New Zealand captain, Daniel Vettori, who holds the record for the best one-day bowling at Lord’s, has been quoted as saying, ‘Lord’s is a special place for any cricketer and it is a privilege to play here’. The quote sits pertly on one of the many display billboards at Lord’s, next to an artful black and white photograph of Vettori looking wistful or perhaps just slightly hung over.

You would think that the ongoing rugby rivalry against Australia would transfer into the cricketing arena too, and while New Zealand’s cricket rivalry with Australia is strong, there are two factors that mean the trans-Tasman cricketing relationship shines just slightly dimmer than the one with England.

Firstly, history. New Zealand has played a whopping 93 tests against England, more than double the number it has played against Australia (46). England was New Zealand’s opponent in New Zealand’s first ever test match, in Christchurch in 1930, and has a long history of nurturing the game in New Zealand. It was clear at the beginning that it would take amateurish New Zealand years to catch up with the other test-playing nations, and to do that it needed match practice. Australia, on the other hand, did not play New Zealand for the first time for another 16 years, and after the walkover they inflicted in the single match in 1946 (New Zealand bowled out for 42 and 54; Australia winning by and innings and 103 runs in under two days) they did not deign to play another test against New Zealand for an astonishing 27 years. Make no mistakes, for nearly all of the period of Australia versus New Zealand cricket the larger neighbour has clearly been the dominant force. But the legacy of this dominance still plays a role, and is quickly remembered (rightly or wrongly) in incidents such as the infamous under-arm delivery in 1981.

Secondly, New Zealanders are a pragmatic lot. There’s no sense in investing all your emotional capital in a rivalry in which you have little hope of victory on a consistent basis. Australia hands out so many drubbings to New Zealand on the cricket field that any victory over the baggy-green worshipping millionaire sportsmen from across the Tasman is greeted by a national outpouring of good cheer. (I remember the great roar of approval at Paul McCartney’s concert at Western Springs in Auckland in March 1993 was when he offered his congratulations for the one-day victory earlier that day against Australia, in which Jeff Wilson hit an electrifying 44 not out off 28 balls to eke out a come-from-behind 3 wicket win). England, on the other hand, is the classy team that New Zealand can beat. Not all the time, and more in the one-day game than in tests, but it still feels good to be able to foot it with a pedigree team.

Mitchell’s observation of the lack of a sense of dramatic narrative flow to the New Zealand is valid too, at least as far as the English media are concerned. English sport writers are great mythologisers, always fond of stoking a story to build great rivalries, or building up sporting heroes into titanic figures of legend. Witness the ever-present English cricket writers’ hobby of poking around trying to find ‘Thenextbotham’ (it’s pronounced excitedly, as one word, generally while wiping a small bubble of frothy saliva from the corner of the mouth). They are also ever eager to christen a player with ‘talismanic status’, such as the frequently injured all-rounder Andrew Flintoff. The main effect of assigning talismanic status to a player is that England generally lose as many matches as possible when that player is unavailable, because a valid excuse has conveniently presented itself. At least the Guardian writer Vic Marks, writing about the second test at Old Trafford, is polite enough to mention the favourable comparison between Flintoff and New Zealand’s giant all-rounder, Jacob Oram:

Oram looked like a journeyman. So let's compare him to, say, the former colossus, Andrew Flintoff. The Lancastrian has scored five centuries in his 67 Tests and averages 32. Oram five centuries in 29 Tests at an average of 37. Ah, but what of the bowling? Flintoff, 197 wickets at 32; Oram, 59 wickets at 29. Gulp.

Perhaps the level of English disinterest will subside as the tour progresses, but I can only see a few chances for this to occur. Perhaps New Zealand might pull off an unlikely victory in the upcoming third test, which would set off a round of teeth-gnashing and recriminations in English cricket for emerging from a test series against lowly New Zealand with only a piffling draw to show for it. Heads would roll, or at the very least, some England players would feel their necks getting appreciably chillier as the selectors draw up their team for the South Africa series.

More likely is that as the test series ends and the shorter game returns, New Zealand will put up more of a fight, and this will give the English media more to write about. If only New Zealand had its bulky biffer, Jesse Ryder, in the team, the English media would’ve had a field day. Mixing the calm rule-abiding nature of his namesake Jesse James with the abstemious, responsible nature of his namesake Shaun Ryder (of Happy Mondays fame), his absence will doubtless be lamented by the entire English cricket media, although it will probably not stop them hanging out in the bars near the cricket grounds on the off chance that he shows up to stick his hand through a toilet window again. Ah, memories…
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