As New Zealand's five-match ODI cricket tour of Australia looms, it's interesting to note that the Australian press is once more paying attention to the New Zealand side. The Australian media loves the game and is blessed with a tremendous set-up in which to watch some of the world's best cricketers at work - the grounds and pitches are superb and the weather is generally excellent. However, due to both the long-standing pride in Australian cricket achievements and the corresponding relative lack of prowess exhibited by most New Zealand teams since the Hadlee heydays, the profile of New Zealand cricket is generally low and when it is the subject of reporting, much of it isn't favourable. Part of the reason for this is the long-standing fondness of Aussies for winding-up thin skinned New Zealanders, but generally they have a point where New Zealand is concerned: there is a distinct lack of world-class players and when compared to the rich vein of talent on offer to the Australian selectors, there is a distinct skills gap between the world champion Australian team and the often struggling New Zealanders.
The one form of the game in which New Zealand has shown some chance of footing it with Australia is in ODIs. Australia is ranked first in the world in both tests and ODIs, but whereas New Zealand is ranked a lowly eighth in tests (with only cellar-dwelling Bangladesh - played 59, lost 52, drawn 6, won 1 - beneath them), in ODIs the 'Black Caps' rank a more creditable fourth. Generally a New Zealand tour of Australia only holds a remote chance of victory, but Australian fans with longer memories will recall the World Series matches in 2002 in which New Zealand beat Australia in three out of four matches, dumping them out of the three match final series. Of course, the main driving force behind those wins was fast bowler Shane Bond, who is sadly no longer part of the picture, but the fact remains that New Zealand has shown it's capable of upsetting Australia at home in ODIs.
One event that's generated considerable comment in the Australian media was New South Wales' signing of Brendon McCullum to play in the T20 state final between NSW and Victoria yesterday in Sydney, having not appeared for the state before. McCullum, an explosive opening wicketkeeper-batsman, holds the current record for the highest score in T20 cricket (158 not out for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL competition), and would be a good pick for most teams. Some controversy emerged in Australia as a result of this 'parachute selection', with traditionalists arguing that McCullum's role as a hired gun was unfair given that he had not appeared for NSW in the competition before the final and therefore was not a 'true' part of NSW team.
This led to two interesting comments in the media by high-profile Australian cricketers. The first was from the recently retired Australian opener Matthew Hayden, who offered his sympathy for the situation that had apparently led McCullum to sign for NSW, and pointed the finger of blame at the ICC:
Matthew Hayden believes the signing of New Zealand star Brendon McCullum by NSW to play in tonight's Twenty20 final against Victoria in Sydney is an indictment on the state of world cricket and the poor treatment of New Zealand.
The just retired Australian great claims that if the game was administered properly at the highest level, New Zealand players would be too busy representing their country at the peak time of their season, not signing for Australian states.
"It is reflective of how disappointing the international program has been for New Zealand more than anything," Hayden said last night.
"It's a real indictment on their cricket that you can have one of the elite players in world cricket not being able to play the volume of cricket with the earning capacity that most international athletes can expect. It's pretty tough. I feel very sympathetic towards a country like New Zealand, which has some wonderful cricketers but they don't get enough international opportunities. What's the ICC (International Cricket Council) doing?"
Matthew Hayden's comments are an expression of the collegiality that still runs through professional cricket. Sure, players have to be competitive on the field and modern cricket often involves mind games in the media and unseemly sledging during the game. But despite that, there is a real sense of mutual respect for a former rival evident in Hayden's words. However, while his argument against the ICC's scheduling policies do have a broad resonance when considering the New Zealand cricket schedule over the course of the last few years, when you consider the current New Zealand cricket schedule there isn't much to complain about. New Zealand's summer tourists this year have been super: the West Indies followed by India, both for a substantial number of matches. McCullum's quick trip to Sydney occurred in a window of opportunity in which his provincial team Otago had already qualified for the finals of the T20 competition in New Zealand and didn't require his match-winning hitting. As long as Otago didn't mind losing his services for a dead rubber match, I'm sure the management of New Zealand Cricket would be happy for McCullum to be gaining match play against a quality opposition, scoping out the SCG pitch and acclimatising to Australian conditions.
The second media comment was that of quixotic Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds, who gave it a bit of larrikin when he was interviewed by comedy legends Roy and HG on their Triple M radio programme on Friday. Symonds took a nationalistic approach to the debate on McCullum's NSW signing, arguing that it was unseemly for NSW to select McCullum for a one-off match when that would displace a team member who had battled through the T20 season to get NSW to the final. Unfortunately, Symonds also resorted to some colourful expressions to illustrate his point, which is what most of the media focused on, because whenever Symonds attracts attention these days the story is coloured by his history of disciplinary problems. Symonds was reported as saying:
“They're trying to use him [McCullum] as the out because he's a Kiwi,” Symonds said. "Yep, we love to hate them, but he's the lump of s..., sorry, lump of cow dirt, that people are thinking of. Now to get away from that, the actual topic is about playing cricket and getting into a final.
"To get yourself to that position and if you haven't brought anybody in, personally I wouldn't be changing a winning team. It doesn't matter about McCullum, mate, he could have been Irish, he still would have got it.”
“It's not his fault, he's doing his job and trying to earn a wage. But what happened here is an injustice. I said Daniel Smith, his opposite number, was going to miss out. But they said this morning that Daniel Smith is going to play, but at the end of day somebody is still going to miss out"
Symonds' on-air comments were no skin off McCullum's nose, and he offered the correct response, which was to laugh off the insult and rise above it, rather than to over-dramatise the situation:
McCullum was happy to let the moment pass. "Mate, people are entitled to their opinion and I certainly wasn't offended by it at all," he said. "There's nothing you can do about it. I was over here [in Australia] to enjoy the occasion and certainly did that and it was just a great game to be a part of. I'm not worried what people have to say and certainly not offended by it at all."
I'm sure that if Symonds is selected and plays against McCullum on this tour a sheepish apology will be offered in person and accepted, and nothing more will come of this minor case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. After all, New Zealand can't afford to be too precious about drunken incidents given the wayward antics of Jesse Ryder.
The real concern is, as the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out:
...that this isn't a one-off. [Symonds is] supposed to be proving to Cricket Australia and his team that he's committed to them. Any elite athlete who goes on air and starts rambling after consuming alcohol must face questions from his employer. Symonds just has to hope CA hasn't run out of patience. It's not renowned for its sense of humour.
Here's hoping that if Symonds is in good enough form to be selected that his unwise comments don't keep him out of the spotlight.
NZ in Australia
29 Jan v Prime Minister's XI, Canberra
01 Feb 1st ODI, Perth
06 Feb 2nd ODI, MCG
08 Feb 3rd ODI, SCG
10 Feb 4th ODI, Adelaide
13 Feb 5th ODI, Brisbane
15 Feb Only T20, SCG