07 December 2012

Et tu, Brute?

The debacle of New Zealand's cricket captain Ross Taylor's sacking from the captaincy today has all the hallmarks of a traditional New Zealand Cricket farce, replete with poor judgement, cack-handed management and a stunning tone-deafness to the views of cricket fans. The Herald's Andrew Alderson thinks it all stems from new coach Mike Hesson, and asks 'how could one man who has been in charge for two test tours and the World T20 possibly command such executive powers?' Perhaps the cricket bureaucrats who engineered the great John Wright's exit from the coaching role are now finally getting their way in the captaincy stakes as well.

Certainly, Taylor's captaincy has not been a golden 16 months for the sport in New Zealand. There have been a great many losses, typically resulting from batting capitulations. In the 13 tests with Taylor at the helm since November 2011 there have been only four wins (two against Zimbabwe, one against Australia in Hobart and last month's victory over Sri Lanka in Colombo). These four wins are balanced by a mere two draws and seven defeats, including the horror run of five straight test losses that ended in Colombo. Taylor's captaincy figures for the other two forms of the game are not particularly pleasant reading either:

  • Tests: Played 13, won 4, drew 2, lost 7
  • ODIs: Played 21, won 6, lost 12, no result 3
  • T20s: Played 14, won 6, tied 2, lost 4, no result 2

This is a poor showing, certainly, apart from the middling achievement in knockabout T20s. But Taylor has been scoring good runs as captain, which is his main role as the team's strongest batsman. Here's his comparative stats for all three forms:

  • Tests: As captain: 49.85 average. Not as captain: 41.12 average
  • ODIs: As captain: 46.7 average. Not as captain: 35.79 average
  • T20s: As captain: 43.83 average. Not as captain: 20.34 average

These figures make stark reading. Taylor has clearly blossomed as a batsman during his time as captain. It would be ridiculous to question Taylor's batting achievements, but the new coach Mike Hesson and, it is rumoured, a cadre of disgruntled players, have determined that Taylor's non-batting captaincy skills are what's holding the team back.

Granted, the team results highlighted above have not been encouraging. But this is no excuse for the way Taylor has been treated. He was appointed to the captaincy role because he displays more on-field maturity and leadership than his rival Brendon McCullum, and because the role of captain traditionally goes to the team member (usually but not always a batsman) whose selection is virtually guaranteed if he is fit. Taylor's record demands automatic selection; McCullum's does not, despite him displaying plenty of potential for many years. Part of this stems from the ongoing attempt to reinvent McCullum as an attacking opener, a compromise which has been given life by one strikingly successful innings in India but which has yet to yield reliable and consistent results. (McCullum's test batting average: 35.63; McCullum's test batting average as an opener: 38.43 - pretty good, but hardly threatening)

McCullum was unlucky to emerge into the cricket scene during the heyday of Adam Gilchrist, and his place in the team was forever linked to expectations that he would play a similarly explosive role, despite not being as naturally talented as Gilchrist. (This is no criticism of McCullum - rather, it is a criticism of those who expect miracles from stripling players and throw them to the wolves before they're ready, thereby setting back their careers by years. New Zealand Cricket is particularly fond of this approach). The electrifying opening innings of the IPL made him a cricketing household name and helped kickstart his bank balance, but it also set the seal for his bash-'em-up cameo batting style that often leaves middle-order batsmen struggling to repair the damage in tests and one-dayers after McCullum has departed early for a run-a-ball innings of not very much.  

By way of comparison, here's McCullum's batting averages, including the figures for games in which Taylor was captain as a reference:

  • Tests: 35.63 average (29.54 average under Taylor)
  • ODIs: 30.24 average (35.25 average under Taylor)
  • T20s: 36.00 average (56.12 average under Taylor) 

So while Taylor's batting form as captain has been exemplary, McCullum's form during the same period has only been world-class in the T20 arena; in tests and ODIs he has been only a moderate success. This means that to some extent at least, the team's poor performance has in part been down to McCullum's failure to gel as an opening batsman. That is hardly Taylor's fault.

Perhaps McCullum will make a better captain than Taylor due to some latent leadership skills, I couldn't say. It doesn't bode well that McCullum claims that he doesn't bother listening to the sound advice of New Zealand's best batsman of the modern era, Martin Crowe. Taylor might conceivably be a complete klutz in the dressing-room, getting players off-side and selecting unwise onfield tactics. But one thing that's certain is that New Zealand can ill afford to lose a batsman of Taylor's quality, as is happening for the tough upcoming tour of South Africa. (We've already been down this road before with the talented rogue Jesse Ryder, now playing again for Wellington).

In a way it's pleasing that the long out of favour 33-year-old Canterbury batsman Peter Fulton gets one last shot at making his mark in international cricket due to Taylor's sabbatical, and we should all wish Fulton the best of luck. But have you seen the T20 side that's been selected for the three internationals at the start of the South Africa tour? A tour against the strongest cricketing nation in the world? In a squad of 15 there's five players without international experience. This tour could be a bloodbath of epic proportions.

From his comments this afternoon it appears that Taylor just wants a short break from the game while he comes to terms with the way he's been treated by New Zealand Cricket, but he'll be back for the England tour. We can only hope that Taylor can swallow his pride and return to the national side under the new captaincy of Brendon McCullum, and play more innings like his devastating birthday knock against Pakistan in the World Cup. Perhaps it will do him some good to sit back, score plenty of runs, and let someone else carry the can for the team's poor performances for a change.
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