New Zealand cricket riven by intrigue ahead of England Test series

New Zealand is a country that lives on the edge of seismic disaster.

Beneath its surface it rumbles and grumbles before every so often exploding into volcanic rage. It is a perfect metaphor for the country's cricket.

As a cricket nation New Zealand has always tended to punch above its weight, making the most of a handful of world-class players, backed by feisty, competitive characters. The whole was always greater than the sum of the parts.

Now it resides in a mess of its own making, the dormant activity bursting into life in Galle around four months ago. The Black Caps were about to begin a two-Test series against Sri Lanka when Ross Taylor, the captain and best player, was summoned to a management meeting with the coach, Mike Hesson, his assistant, Bob Carter, and the team manager, Mike Sandle.

"Ross," he was told by Hesson, "we believe you to be a follower rather than a leader. When the tour finishes you will no longer be captain of the team in any format."

"To hear that I wasn't good enough for this team was disappointing," Taylor said later. "Hesson never supported me but I was surprised by the timing." That is an understatement. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the timing was nothing short of crass. New Zealand, predictably, lost the first Test but Taylor produced the batting of his life, making 142 and 74 in Colombo, to square the series.

He returned home to find the debate raging so fiercely, with anger directed at the management by the public, that the talk-backs and phone-ins were the strongest since the All Blacks were beaten by France in Cardiff in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final.

Taylor also found that, according to the New Zealand management, he had been victim of some "miscommunication". He had not been sacked across the board after all, he was told, just from one-day cricket. It was always intended to be a dual role between him and Hesson's Otago colleague and preferred choice, Brendon McCullum. This came as a further surprise to Taylor, who confirmed he had never been offered any such thing and would not consider it anyway as he was unable to work with Hesson.

It appeared to be a feeble attempt at damage limitation by the Black Caps management, in the wake of public opprobrium, and a case of one obviously disgruntled person's word against a group. Only when the contents of a letter, written to New Zealand Cricket's chief executive, David White, by the bowling coach, Shane Bond, were leaked did the deceit become apparent.

"I believe the coach has been dishonest in his assertion around the miscommunication of the captaincy split with Ross," Bond wrote. "At no time in my conversations with Mike Hesson, that mostly included Bob Carter and/or the manager, was the captaincy split ever discussed. It was clear to me that Ross Taylor was to be removed from all three formats."

It was unequivocal and highly embarrassing for Hesson. The fire had previously been stoked when John Buchanan, the NZ director of cricket who helped appoint Hesson in the first place, came out in support of Taylor and found himself overruled.

Rather than go with the team for their tour of South Africa Taylor decided to take a break from the game and rejoin the side only for the first T20 matches of England's tour. The ovations he has received each time he goes to the crease show the esteem in which he is held and where public loyalty lies. He made an emotional century in the second ODI in Napier.

How it all came to this brings to mind Shakespeare's tangled web, a plot of almost Elizabethan intrigue. Taylor was already captain under the coach John Wright – highly credentialled, fine man, and thoroughbred Kiwi – when in 2011, Buchanan, the former coach of Australia, was brought in over Wright's head as director of cricket. Buchanan is not a man whose ideas should be discounted simply because they are often left-field but his ways were not those of the coach who, finding himself thwarted and unable to coexist, resigned.

Buchanan, recognising the apparent lack of clout that Wright had held, recommended that the new coach should be given considerably more power and as a result was hoist with his own petard. Hesson, a young coach of limited achievement with Kenya, Argentina and later Otago, was appointed and Buchanan found himself marginalised with Hesson apparently reporting not to him, as might be expected, but directly to White.

Buchanan is now regarded as a peripheral figure but one with a lucrative contract until the end of the 2015 World Cup. Another contentious move was to appoint Kim Littlejohn in September 2011 as national selection manager. Littlejohn came from Bowls Australia, had no background in cricket and, beyond statistics, knew nothing of the players he was helping select.

Effectively, then, New Zealand's cricket team appear to have been victim of a coup. The country is a parochial place and cross-overs are to be expected but, for example, it cannot be healthy when one member of the panel that appointed McCullum was Stephen Fleming, a brilliant former captain but now McCullum's business manager.

And it is hard not to conclude that Hesson, a man of such limited experience but with almost total power now, has not insisted on bringing in his own man rather than nurture Taylor who he says was learning rapidly under Wright.

Whether the national team, or even cricket in general in the country, has benefited from any of the appointments beyond that of John Wright is doubtful in the eyes of some with intimate knowledge of New Zealand cricket.

There is, they say, no discernible improvement in the results or performance of the national side. There must be doubt that Hesson will survive, given the weight of public opinion against him. Meanwhile Taylor will just get on with being the best player in the team.

Powered by article was written by Mike Selvey in Dunedin, for The Guardian on Sunday 3rd March 2013 14.03 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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