Bulawayo Baby

Fifteen days in Bulawayo, time enough to reacquaint oneself with Zimbabwe’s second city after the last visit five years ago. Also plenty of time to get up close and personal with the Proteas’ next opponents, the New Zealand Black Caps. They are an impressive group.

Not at first glance, of course, because New Zealanders don’t bother much with style or appearance. They are far more interested in substance, and there is plenty of that.

For 70-odd years since they joined cricket’s elite nations, the world’s best rugby-playing nation has never enjoyed a a winning percentage of more than 20% over any substantial period of time. In the last two-and-a-half years that figure stands at 48% across all three formats. If a swimmer or an athlete showed such an improvement in such a short space of time they would be drug-tested every three days. And only if they were Russian would they be declared clean.

But there are no drugs being used by the Black Caps. Instead, a reversion to a style, approach and ethos that suits them. They are playing cricket with the attitude of Kiwis and no longer bothering to try and play Englishmen, South Africans, Indians and – above all – Australians at their own game.

They can’t be bothered with sledging any more, although they don’t have any rules or codes within the squad which outlaw it. If a bowler or batsman feels inclined to respond, they can, but they rarely do these days. And even more rarely instigate that sort of behaviour.

As one senior player explained before play during the first Test against Zimbabwe: “When Baz was captain we just sort of decided that New Zealanders aren’t generally dickheads, so why should we behave like that on a cricket field?”

Despite Australian suggestions to the contrary, there has been no deliberate or concerted effort to ‘clean up’ their game or ‘set an example.’ Brendon McCullum simply asked his players to remember what it was that drew them to the game in the first place, to play with a smile and enjoy the game once again.

The bottom was reached three years ago when they were bowled out for 45 at Newlands. Often an individual, or team, needs to hit rock-bottom before they can start rebuilding and recovering. That process is well underway for the Black Caps and, despite the retirement of ‘Baz’ McCullum, they have a leader in 25-year-old Kane Williamson who is more than ready for the challenge.

He is shy and his beard is scruffy enough to retain a significant amount of egg at breakfast time. He talks quietly and doesn’t command attention. He doesn’t want to. Not interested. But wow, do his team respect him! Averaging nearly 50 on the eve of his 50th Test next week, Williamson is a great in the making. He also surfs and plays guitar. Good music and time in the ocean are two of the better ways to stay fresh and grounded which is handy on the eve of NZ’s longest uninterrupted spell of international cricket in their history, culminating with a return series against SA in New Zealand in March next year.

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