The New Zealand squad which arrived in South Africa from Bulawayo on Thursday knows exactly where it is heading and exactly how they would like to get there – and I’m not talking about the hotel in Umhlanga. The bus driver took care of that.
From head coach Mike Hesson to their highly experienced and popular Logistics Manager, they have a playing and management group on long-term contracts, clear goals and even clearer understanding of their roles and the expectations of them.
A couple of years ago Kane Williamson was not even considered as potential captaincy material – it was all the senior players could hope for if he said half a dozen words in team meetings. Now he is blossoming into a leader commanding respect rather than demanding it and, crucially, it appears to have improved rather than detracted from his performances.
Batting coach Craig MacMillan, too, is much appreciated and respected having played 55 Tests and 197 ODIs for the Black Caps while bowling coach Shane Jurgensen is a supreme technician with a good (albeit injury-curtailed) first-class career and previous international experience as head coach of Bangladesh.
The bowling attack for this tour has every major base covered – and some minor ones. Left arm (Trent Boult)and right arm swing (Tim Southee) share the new ball with Neil Wagner acting as the third seamer – the designated ‘enforcer’. Doug Bracewell does a similar job and bats, too – he may well feature in place of either leg-spinner Ish Sodhi or left arm spinner Mitchell Sandtner who both played against Zimbabwe. And if some off-spin is required, there is the excellent specialist Mark Craig or the part-time stuff from either Williamson or Martin Guptill who claimed a career-best 3-11 in the second Test against Zim.
As hard as it is to find weaknesses in the Black Caps squad, it is worth noting that Guptill’s career batting average is just 30 and that falls to an even more modest 19 against South Africa. Henry Nicholls is a newcomer at number five and could be put under pressure if he comes to the crease early.
Hesson and his employers have done whatever it takes to build a squad, begging, borrowing or stealing if necessary to maintain the unprecedented affection and momentum that cricket attracted during the World Cup. They think differently, work with strengths rather than correct weaknesses and pay attention to the smallest details. Nothing is insignificant if it is important to a player. Which is where the logistics manager kicks in.
Riaan Muller did the job superbly for the Proteas for just over a decade and was hugely popular with the players. When his contract was strangely not renewed a couple of months ago, the Black Caps recognised a good thing when they saw it and snapped him up. He is certainly not the most significant reason why I reckon the tourists start as favourites, but he is certainly one of them.
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