Opinion: Black Caps in freefall on back of selection shockers

Source: 1News

It’s barely been 12 months since the Black Caps reached the pinnacle of Test cricket, upsetting India to claim the inaugural World Test Championship.

Kane Williamson, Michael Bracewell, Tim Southee and Tom Latham all had horror series.

On Tuesday they fell to a 3-0 series defeat to England, a side who had won just one Test from their previous 17 prior to facing New Zealand.

The appointment of Brendon McCullum as England’s head coach appeared to work wonders, with the likes of new captain Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope among those oozing with confidence at the batting crease as they embraced the former New Zealand skipper’s aggressive 'Baz-ball' style of play.

As for New Zealand, the series sweep continues a worrying trend. The Black Caps have been delivering underwhelming performances across the board since falling to Australia in the T20 World Cup final last November.

In fact, disregarding a three-match ODI series sweep against the Netherlands, New Zealand have won just two games from their last 12 across all formats. Their latest loss to England saw the defending Test champions slip to second bottom of the ongoing Test Championship table, above just Bangladesh.

The fact they also lost a Test to Bangladesh at home last summer is utterly embarrassing. Meanwhile, selection woes and the management of Kane Williamson’s elbow have left fans feeling puzzled and frustrated.

Ajaz Patel, who in November became just the third person in history to take 10 wickets in a Test innings, has bowled just two overs for New Zealand in a solitary Test since. The best spinner to come out of New Zealand since Daniel Vettori’s retirement, Patel has been shunted to the side by bits-and-pieces allrounder Michael Bracewell.

As highlighted in a piece when the squad to tour England was named, Bracewell’s first-class record shows a player who is neither particularly good at batting or bowling in the long form of the game. His debut Test series has proven that the numbers don’t lie. He’s scored 96 runs across four innings, batting at a position four or five spots lower than he does for Wellington.

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When he was announced as a shock selection for the England tour, Black Caps coach Gary Stead backed the abilities of the 31-year-old, claiming he gave the ball "a good rip". Well, the English batsman have given his bowling “a good hit”, smashing him all around Trent Bridge and Headingley at close to six runs an over – good enough for the worst economy rate ever by a Kiwi bowler in a Test series.

It’s not the only selection blunder Stead has made.

On a lively, seaming deck at Lord’s, Stead opted to bring Patel back into the side for the first time in eight months and left out New Zealand’s best seam bowler Matt Henry. Patel bowled two overs at the cost of 22 runs in the Test.

Stead acknowledged his mistake by dropping Patel and picking Henry for the second Test. Unfortunately, this game was at an entirely different ground on an entirely different pitch. The flat batting track at Trent Bridge would’ve been perfect for a spinner, especially when New Zealand were bowling last.

Instead, Bracewell came in for the injured Colin De Grandhomme and promptly got pumped for 60 off eight overs in the second innings as Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes brilliantly batted England to victory.

A good batting pitch also welcomed the teams at Headingley, but Bracewell was once again favoured over Patel. Bracewell took two wickets in the Test at an economy of 7.3, while England’s spinner Jack Leach took five wickets in each innings to claim his third Test 10-fer.

The difference between Stead and McCullum in terms of mentality and tactics could not be more obvious, yet it would be unfair to heap all the blame on the New Zealand coach.

Brendon McCullum and Gary Stead.

The players too, have been poor, for the most part.

New Zealand’s top five, which on paper looks as good as any in the country’s history, even with the retirement of Ross Taylor, went missing for the entire series.

In the 26 innings between them, Tom Latham, Will Young, Kane Williamson, Devon Conway and Henry Nicholls combined for just three fifties, no hundreds, and three ducks, averaging 21.5 between them.

Their poor performance meant the historic effort from Daryl Mitchell – whose 538 runs are the most ever by a New Zealander in a three-Test series – were wasted, as he and Tom Blundell were left to dig the side out of a hole nearly every innings. Had they not, the Black Caps could have been truly embarrassed.

Captain Williamson and his deputy Latham are the biggest concerns.

Williamson has played just four Tests since the World Test Championship final and has failed to pass 50 in any of them.

An ESPNCricinfo story on Sunday highlighted the New Zealand skipper’s struggles dealing with an elbow injury and a lack of form, and suggested the potential for Williamson to hand the reins of the side over to Tom Latham, as commentator Simon Doull has called for.

But Latham isn’t playing well either. In fact, Latham has never played particularly well against any of the top six sides. His average of 40.55 in Test cricket is flattering when you consider his averages against the top tier teams – Australia (26.6), England (31.3), India (32.2), Pakistan (31.2) and South Africa (9.8). Nine of his 12 Test centuries have come against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

His captaincy often lacks intuition too. It was Latham who captained New Zealand during that loss to Bangladesh in January, and he frankly looked lost and continued to go through the motions tactically just when a turning point beckoned.

In the 80th over of Bangladesh’s first innings, with the visitors 193/3, Neil Wagner beat the bat of Mominul Haque (not out on 9) three times and looked almost certain to take a wicket. But rather than keep striving with him, Latham took the new ball and gave it to a worn-down Tim Southee. Mominul went on to score 88, Bangladesh posted 458 with a lead of 130 and New Zealand lost the Test.

As for the bowlers, there are genuine concerns about the potential of the attack going forward. A year ago, Southee, Trent Boult, Kyle Jamieson and Neil Wagner were the best fast bowling quartet in the world. That is no longer the case.

Southee has been off the boil by his standards since that World Test Championship victory and struggled mightily against England, taking just 9 wickets across the three Tests at an average of 59 and an economy of 4.3.

He struggled for answers in the face of the English middle order's incredibly aggressive approach.

Jamieson suffered a worrying back injury, while Wagner was down on pace and struggled to make an impact in his only game of the series at Headingley. Only Boult enhanced his reputation after a blistering spell in the first innings at Leeds ripped through England’s top order.

So where to from here?

Short form series against Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands begin at the end of next week, before the team heads to the West Indies and then Australia for more of the same. This will be a good opportunity for several players to make a case for selection at the T20 World Cup in October as well as the ODI World Cup next year.

But there are likely to be more bumps to come on the rocky road, and if current form continues, Stead will surely be in the hot seat. If only we had Baz-ball.