New Zealand could be the Test world champions by Tuesday. They’ve completely transformed their cricket culture to get to this point. There are lessons for the Proteas in their rise, writes RYAN VREDE.
What the Black Caps have accomplished in making the World Test Championship final is astounding. For a country of five-million people, and a sport that pales in popularity to rugby, to rise to being on the verge of being the best team in the game’s most prestigious format is inspirational.
As a Proteas supporter, I recall New Zealand, in their previous guise, being everything I hoped the Proteas would never be – dreadfully inconsistent, soft on the road, repulsively arrogant (who can forget the 2011 World Cup quarter-final incident?) and delusional about their standing in the game.
Now they are everything I wish the Proteas can be – consistent, road warriors, unfailingly humble and possessing of temperament (collective and individual) that fuels their talent.
This transformation has taken years. I recall watching them crumble to 45 all out at Newlands in 2013. Their batsmen had no answers to Vernon Philander’s examination of swing and seam. Kane Williamson top-scored with 13 in an innings that lasted four balls shy of 20 overs. The Test ended in three days, South Africa winning by an innings and 27 runs. They’d beat the tourists by an innings and 193 runs in the second Test in Port Elizabeth.
That was just over seven years ago. I remember thinking at the time that they were destined to be Test cricket’s great pretenders forever. How wrong I was.
Some have referred to their rise as a cricket miracle. It is not. By definition, a miracle is ‘an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency’.
New Zealand’s rise is no miracle, it is the by-product of a deliberate and considered plan which focused on transforming key aspects of the culture of the national team, on and off the field.
It has required patience and an unwavering belief in their vision. There are lessons in their journey for a Proteas team who are in the infancy of their own rebuilding phase.
INVESTMENT IN AND PATIENCE WITH THE RIGHT COACH
New Zealand appointed Mike Hesson in 2012. He had limited international experience (a year as head coach of Kenya), but he had transformed Otago from a struggling provincial team into a consistent and successful domestic force over the course of a 15-year coaching career there.
The Black Caps hired him, primarily, for his experience in a rebuilding job of this nature. The board had a vision and picked the coach they thought would give them the best chance of realising that vision.
Mark Boucher was that man for the Proteas, although his appointment in late 2019 raised legitimate concerns. Not only had it been a hurried one that didn’t follow CSA’s traditional hiring practices and protocols, but he was given an unprecedented four-year contract.
Director of cricket Graeme Smith clearly feels he has the right man for the job and time will tell whether that investment yields the expected return.
The New Zealand cricket board and public had to have patience with Hesson as he imprinted his unique mark on the team. Smith has called for similar patience with Boucher. Boucher’s team was excellent in the first Test against the West Indies, sparking thoughts that they may be moving out of the teething-pain phase of their development. I hope it isn’t a false dawn.
If Boucher isn’t the man, the CSA board has to be decisive in finding the right fit.
INVESTMENT IN AND PATIENCE WITH THE RIGHT CAPTAIN
There was plenty of drama when Hesson moved on from Ross Taylor as captain in 2012. Taylor later claimed that Hesson had lied to the media about the nature and details of his removal. Ultimately, it proved to be the right decision.
His successor, Brendan McCullum, started the process of driving a culture change from within by focusing on micro details (like chasing every ball to the boundary) and instilling an aggressive playing philosophy. He was later succeeded by Kane Williamson, whose leadership style has been less in your face, but no less potent (under him New Zealand have won 21 and lost just eight Tests).
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, McCullum said: ‘I was able to add an element of the aggression and confidence, but I was never going to add that level of consistency. Under Kane’s captaincy they’ve been able to have that.’
Dean Elgar’s appointment as the Test captain came against the background of there being no obvious candidates for the job. I’m not even sure Elgar is the solution, although time will tell.
Leadership matters, so the Proteas finding the right man for the job, long term, is critical. Once again, if Elgar isn’t that man, or if he is that man for a defined period while the right candidate is identified, there needs to be decisiveness about this dimension of the Proteas leadership.
DEVELOP A DISTINCTIVE IDENTITY
The Black Caps were, for years, determined to adopt the bravado and sometimes brutal gamesmanship that defined Australia in their golden period. It had failed, forcing them to confront themselves in meaningful ways.
At the outset of the journey that now culminates in a WTC final, they asked themselves what it meant to play like Kiwis.
‘We realised that it wasn’t my cricket team or Mike Hesson’s cricket team or the cricket team of any of the captains that had gone before. It was New Zealand’s cricket team. And at the time, the way we were doing things, we were far from being a representation of our people,’ McCullum told ESPNcricinfo.
The ESPNcricinfo piece cited earlier details that at the time the management team felt that included qualities like humility, hard work, innovation and graciousness. Those qualities define the team today.
If they haven’t already, the Proteas should be asking this question of themselves, because it will inform and guide everything they do, on and off the field.
So, what does it mean to play like South Africans? Finding the answer was transformative for the Black Caps, and will be for the Proteas.
EXPLOIT THE UNDERLYING VALUE OF WINNING
Success breeds success. This is true in the context of building a Test force, as well as cultivating young talent to sustain that success.
New Zealand’s Test side is loaded with talented senior players, many of whom are among the best in the world in their discipline. Critically, they also have a clutch of gifted rookies emerging, among them Kyle Jamieson, Matt Henry, Tom Blundell, Devon Conway and Daryl Mitchell.
The emergence of this calibre of players doesn’t happen by accident. It is a direct result of a culture of success at the game’s highest level. It is self-evident that consistently high-performance levels from the national side raises performance at domestic level, creating a scenario where those who are next in line have extremely high degrees of competency.
This, combined with the benefit of those rookies coming into a confident team environment and culture that promotes the development of Test rookies (as opposed of senior players being fearful of them), make the transition to Test cricket easier than it would for most.
The Proteas once had this. One thinks of those Smith-led teams of the early to mid-2000s as an example. They lack for a senior core of that ilk at the moment, which complicates their task, but with a purposeful and considered plan, they have the potential to reinvent that environment.
That can’t happen without them first establishing some consistency of results. Hopefully their excellence in St Lucia last week is the starting point for this.