There are certain ways of playing the various games that characterise our world of sport, standard approaches and skills that we are taught and then strive to master as best we can, all having their own methodologies and ideas as to how they should be accomplished. Yet now and again an individual or a team offer up a new way of doing things – a new approach that is thrown into the ring. International Test cricket is currently experiencing this thanks to New Zealand and their captain Brendon McCullum. A concoction of instinct, commitment and skill is shaking up and revolutionising this format of the game, stretching out the boundaries of Test cricket and providing a new template for how it can be played.
Reaching the World Cup Final demonstrated their excellence in 50 over cricket but it is in the Test arena that the Black Cap’s gradual rise is most intriguing. It has taken their performance in the recent two-match series against England, for which they thoroughly deserved their draw, for the appreciation to come in its droves. Their victory in the Headingly Test was only their fifth in England but it was the margin of victory that is noteworthy – 199 runs being 5 short of their largest ever in Tests, the task they had set their opposition being to meet the second highest fourth-innings score ever made. This was the direct result of the way this modern-day New Zealand side applied themselves in each facet of the game. If there was ever a side that lives or dies by its sword, it is Brendon McCullum’s New Zealand. The man born in the Sport Lived Gap year destination of Dunedin has a side who are taking the game by storm and receiving appreciating glances and endorsements from pundits, fans and players alike. They are throwing caution to the wind, intelligently applying a one-day mentality to the game’s longest format – and thus far with admirable success.
The batting has to be given the first appraisal because the run-scoring has occurred at a sustained pace almost unprecedented in Test cricket. Tempo and keeping the scoreboard ticking is everything. Not by trying to bash the leather out of the ball at every available opportunity but by simply playing with aggressive and attacking intent and shot selection. During their second innings at Headingly eight of the ten batsmen who took guard hit a six – that has never been done before. The closest was seven, achieved by? You guessed it, New Zealand last year. McCullum even hit his first ball right into the gawping spectators. On day one BJ Watling scored 120 from only 163 balls, while Luke Ronchi struck a quick-fire 88 off only 70 balls to turn fortunes in their favour. Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor scored 99 together in under 15 overs. When they resumed on 338 for 6 in their second innings, the Black Caps amassed a further 116 runs in just 16 overs. In six sessions they scored 804 runs, at almost 5 an over. To do this over such an extended period is mightily impressive and almost unparalleled in recent years. It is all the more compelling when you consider that they were 2 for 2 and 23 for 2 in each innings. They play their shots and try to knock the bowlers off their lengths and lines; the skilled batsmen attack whenever they can while the tailenders have the freedom to swing to their hearts content.
Such purpose with the bat is mirrored in the field. McCullum is willing to experiment, keeping attacking fields longer than any other captain. For example, he will often keep two slips in place when the opponents are scoring freely. Their fielding in Tests over the past year has been stunning, stemming from each player committing fully to every ball, irrespective of the match situation. From start to finish opposition batsmen are made to work for their runs; the intensity never recedes. Fuelled by an attacking mind-set, fielders are alert and ready for the chances that come their way, meaning catches stick more often than not. McCullum trusts his naturally attacking instincts with his field-placings and bowlers, the latter led by a Southee-Bolt opening partnership that must surely be one of the most effective pace attacks in world cricket right now. These are not just talented bowlers but real competitors with an infectious positivity.
And here lies the crux of New Zealand’s resurgence – positivity. It dovetails with their competitiveness and talent and thus makes them so appealing to cricket fans as they are seemingly playing free of any burdens or worries, simply enjoying the game they adore. Enjoyment is the aim, increased success the consequence. It also significantly means that success and failure are dealt with the same level-headed composure. There are no hangovers from losses, while difficult situations during matches can quickly be overcome. Watch them play and you’ll notice that they do not sledge. It was only two years ago that they were bowled out for 45 by South Africa; a turning point for McCullum and coach Mike Hesson who subsequently set out to imbue the positive culture that is now thriving. The attacking mentality and the risks do not always pay off, and can gain criticism when they back-fire, but the invigoration and emphasis on taking the game to the opponent persists – just look at how they recovered after the defeat at Lords.
Indeed New Zealand were the catalyst for that tremendously dramatic and exciting first Test of the series at the home of cricket, lauded by many as one of the best since the famous 2005 Ashes against Australia. England could not afford to not follow suit through risk of simply being blown away; caution was replaced by ambition. The fact that many have pronounced their regret that England only got to face them in two Tests is telling, as was Joe Root claiming that England had it in them to score 411 runs on the last day pitch at Headingly. Cook’s side are moving hesitantly in the same direction as the one McCullum has crafted in his own image. The last side to have this sort of impact on Test cricket was a leading Australia team full of stars such as Steve Waugh, Shane Warne, Glenn Mcgrath and Ricky Ponting. This New Zealand one is less heralded and come from a far more humble starting point.
Only time will tell if New Zealand’s cricket revolution will set a new trend for Test cricket. Yet the instinct, commitment and skill that they continue to demonstrate as they take games by the scruff of the neck is certainly getting heads turning. In the words of McCullum,
‘If you get out, drop a catch or bowl a bad ball it’s not the end of the world. But jeez, you can have some fun, if you put your heart and soul into it.”
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