While his teammates insisted just a few days ago that The Ashes doesn’t really feature in their thinking, New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum was singing a different tune over the weekend. The straight-talking batsman, who linked up his side earlier than planned, was brutally honest about New Zealand’s current position in world cricket.
Currently ranked eighth in the world, last having won a Test match in England in 1999, and last having managed an away series win in 2011 (against Zimbabwe), New Zealand isn’t exactly setting the imagination alight with its impending two-Test series against England. And McCullum is under no illusions about the Black Caps’ current position in world cricket.
“It hurts but it’s a fair ranking,” McCullum during New Zealand’s tour match.
“You’ve got to earn the right for a five-Test series in England, just as you’ve got to earn the right to play a Boxing Day Test at The MCG or to play against India at Eden Gardens. We’ve got to earn that right and, if we are realistic, we haven’t.
“We’re not one of the best powerhouses of world cricket. We’re not a consistently performing international team worthy of those occasions at this stage. That is not to say we are not wanting to be there or that is not the goal for this group. As a group we want to be playing in the top billing events and to do that we need to perform better and that is certainly a goal of this team.”
What might inspire some confidence is that they’re fresh off a drawn series against England right after being hammered away from home by South Africa. That thrashing, dished out in two consecutive innings defeats by the Proteas, is part of what sparked seemingly new vigour in the Black Caps when England came to visit.
“South Africa gave us a chance to strip things right back,” he said. “They exposed us so greatly, it meant we had to go back to the drawing board and work out what our style of cricket was going to be.
“We looked at what our strengths are and the tweaks we need to make. We made a few immediate changes, changed the balance of our line-up by playing six batters and having some aggressive players in the middle order so you free up your top order a little bit. We went with four bowlers, knowing three of those are going to have to bowl reasonably long spells.”
New Zealand put England under the cosh in all three Tests in March and came within one wicket of clinching a historic 1-0 series win over the current second-ranked Test team. McCullum admits it was agonising for the whole side.
“I thought we deserved to win the series against England. The guys were absolutely heartbroken by not getting across the line. But it was one of those things; it was a gripping series. From where we were at the start of that series, especially after a tough South African tour, to where we sat at the end, we could take an immense amount of pride in the characteristics that we showed on the field.
“I don’t think England underestimated us. But they probably didn’t expect us to play as well as we did. I don’t think they were complacent. I like to think we put them under a lot of pressure and that showed some weaknesses in their line-up. It gave us confidence and probably ate away a little bit at the confidence they had when they arrived on our shores.”
Some of the positives must be that New Zealand had three batsmen in the top five run scorers of that tour and two bowlers in the top wicket-takers list. Naturally conditions in England are vastly different compared to back home, but with the winter chill just starting to disappear, there’ll be just a touch of swing available for the Kiwis. The bowlers will relish it, but the Black Cap batsmen will have their work cut out for them. The relatively inexperienced top order will have to contend with veteran bowlers on their home turf with all of them undoubtedly trying to get fired up for the upcoming Ashes.
It’s a good thing for New Zealand, then, that they’ve got a skipper who has his head screwed on straight and who is well-aware of his cricketing mortality.
“My desire and love for the game is as strong as it has ever been,” he said. “I have some responsibilities which really drive that, too. But physically, as we saw in the last series, I’m maybe not as bullet proof as what you may think when you’re younger. So I have to make sure I do the right things there, too, but I’m certainly enjoying my cricket and this is an exciting time for us as a group, too, and it would be great to be a pivotal member of that over the next couple of years.”
Despite his participation in the IPL and the constant barrage from the public chorus that the longest format of the game is suffering, McCullum still sees it as the ultimate prize and would much rather take a Test series victory over England than silverware from a one-day competition.
“To me Test cricket is still the pinnacle of the game,” he said. “So to achieve a Test series win on the back of the series we’ve just had would be the biggest win that I’ve been involved in my time with New Zealand cricket.” DM
Photo: New Zealand’s captain Brendon McCullum reacts as he walks off the ground after being dismissed for 69 runs during the third day of the second test against England at the Basin Reserve in Wellington March 16, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray
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