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Consistent underachieving must end

From our New Zealand correspondent

June 14, 2004

One feature of living in a small country, with a small player-base, is that crises of performance and availability rear their heads more often than in larger countries.

New Zealand are used to the sort of traumas that have dogged their harrowing tour of England. Their early-summer tour to South Africa in 2000 was similarly blighted, and they are sure to go through it all again, though hopefully not for some time yet.

Despite their best efforts, New Zealand were unable to cover for every eventuality, but at least the survivors managed to demonstrate in the third Test at Trent Bridge that, with the highest degree of old-fashioned guts, they could remain competitive.

To have pushed England so close was testimony to the spirit in the squad, albeit the series had already been wrapped up. And to have provided three contests of good cricket is a marketer's dream. But turning up and providing a contest has never been sufficient for New Zealand sides, in any sport, and some benefits will surely come from this experience in England.

Last year, when John Bracewell was appointed coach, it was with the immediate brief of providing an uplift in the playing performance of the one-day side, and that may yet be evident over the next few weeks in the tri-series.

He managed a very quick turnaround in New Zealand's one-day fortunes over the summer. But throughout that time, the problems in Test cricket have not gone away. The ability to seize an opportunity and take it to the maximum has not been developed by this side.

In reality, that failing has probably been the consistent theme throughout the 75 years that New Zealand has now been playing Test cricket. But more is expected in this modern professional era, as England's players have amply demonstrated in the past three matches.

Professionalism is an attitude. Chris Cairns had it in heaps at Nottingham. It was also evident every time Mark Richardson went out to bat, because occupation of the crease is his livelihood. He doesn't have the advantage of selection in one-day sides, so he has to maximise his abilities in the few chances he gets. No-one could fault his attitude.

James Franklin applied himself professionally as well, and has been rewarded with a call-up to the one-day side as well. But as for certain others in the side, the tag "professional" has yet to be appreciated.

The third-innings collapses that have bedevilled New Zealand sides of recent history are not a case of not trying, rather they are a case of not trying hard enough. Hardness of attitude has been the cornerstone of the All Black rugby legend, which made a welcome and emphatic reappearance at Carisbrook over the weekend.

That hardness is a basic feature of Australian cricket, and it was the asset England were able to utilise in the toughest going of the series, the run-chases at Lord's and Trent Bridge, when two of the oldest professionals in the side, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe, guided their side home when defeat seemed the logical result.

It is also the quality that Bracewell must find in the next phase of New Zealand's development, as they prepare for a home-and-away series with Australia next summer. For until he does, his side is going to repeat time and again those very weaknesses that England exploited on this tour.