Hometown favourites: Taylor’s conquered demons means Black Caps are the World Cup’s dark horses

It’s difficult for me to remember a time in my life when the words ‘New Zealand’ and ‘cricketing force’ have been appropriately used on the same sentence. There have been some truly wonderful players, and on occasion, instances of mediocre England sides getting rolled over by the brilliance of Stephen Fleming, Chris Cairns, or even Dion Nash.

However, not since before I was born have they genuinely struck fear into the hearts of world class opponents. They have won just one Test series against England since 1987, beating Nasser Hussain’s side 2-1 thanks to 19 wickets from Cairns and no England batsman making a century (Alex Tudor came closest, stranded on 99*).

Now the six-time semi-finalists (and zero-time finalists) have a World Cup partially on home soil, and they have a side brimming with talent and hope.

This didn’t happen overnight though, nor is simply a white-ball revolution. This New Zealand is so much more.

Go back a little more than a year. New Zealand are preparing for the visit of the West Indies, against whom they will play three Tests, 5 ODIs, and 2 T20Is.

Ross Taylor, perhaps the most talented batsman the country has seen since Fleming, is battling with demons inside and out: sacked as captain in a storm of controversy, isolated within his own team, and over a year without a Test match hundred. He couldn’t socialise, he couldn’t sleep, and he couldn’t buy a run.

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He rang his long-time mentor and former NZ cricketer Martin Crowe, desperate for some advice about how to wind down, and more simply how to sleep.

“I asked him to slowly explain a typical night before an important match,” Crowe writes. “I repeated it back to him. He realised he had stopped living a normal life.

“While away overseas on tour, he was living a cricketing nightmare. In other words, his nights were spent fretting on what he thought he was the only thing he had left in the game – his batting. He had forgotten about himself.”

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And in some ways so had the whole team. They had won just one of the last 13 Test, the one win coming when Taylor scored a hundred in Colombo. It wasn’t confined to red-ball cricket either; they had suffered the ignominy of a 3-0 whitewash at the hands of Bangladesh, culminating in failing to defend 307 in Dhaka. That time a Taylor hundred was in vain, and felt worthless.

Crowe offered the stricken Taylor some advice, encouraging him to avoid cricket at all costs once the team left the ground, recharging between days of play, with a glass of red wine, or good food, letting the stresses of Test cricket ebb away into the evening.

He texted Crowe the night before that first Test match of the 2013/14 summer saying he was having dinner and a glass of wine with some friends. Crowe smiled, and wondered if he was on the verge of something special.

Taylor was, as were New Zealand. He made 217 unbeaten runs, and although they would draw that Test in Dunedin, they won the next two, and Taylor scored a hundred in each.

It triggered a run in which they have lost only two of their last Test matches, and the form has translated directly into ODIs.

They drew 2-2 with the West Indies after the Test series, before beating the World Champions India 4-0 (back-to-back hundreds from Taylor). Since that night when Taylor rang Crowe, NZ have a 17-6 record in ODIs.

They don’t rely on Taylor either. His best friend Martin Guptill has proved to be a more than capable opening partner for Brendan McCullum, who has finally accepted that a man of his ability has to open the batting in the short form. Kane Williamson at three now averages over 45 in ODIs and Test matches, and Grant Elliott and former Australian Luke Ronchi recently produced a ODI record 267-run stand for the sixth wicket.

With the ball, it must be said, NZ look at times vulnerable. The recall of Daniel Vettori tells of their inability to find a suitable spinner (Adam Milne doesn’t look ready), but a mixture of Mitchell McClenaghan, the effervescent Trent Boult, and some overs from Elliott and Corey Anderson may be enough to defend some of the scoreboard pressure created by their explosive batting lineup.

On Valentine’s Day, they will open the World Cup at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch. If NZ fans want to help out on Friday 13, I recommend finding Ross Taylor and making sure he’s having the nicest evening possible. If he sleeps easy, then you might just find that the hosts make that elusive final at last.

[Featured image courtesy of Michael McGimpsey via Flickr. In-text image courtesy of Getty Images. Infographic made by me. Yes indeed ladies and gentlemen.]


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Goodbye Scotland – sometimes you’re too hard to love

The declaration: I am half-Scottish, by virtue my father being born-and-bred here, and my grandfather having lived in Scotland his whole life and having served the people of Scotland both as a soldier and an MP. I have lived here for more of my life than I haven’t, and proudly identify as both British and Scottish. So now you know.

Goodbye Scotland, you’ve made leaving fucking easy.

I really love Scotland as a country: the mountains, the food, the people, the buildings, I’m even learning to love whiskey. I feel a great affinity with Scotland, and it’s the country where I became a man, fell in love, had my heart broken, and discovered binge drinking. However, the referendum has reminded of exactly what’s wrong with the country: its endless defensiveness.

I got on with my job at the Grange today, commentating on yet another humiliating defeat for Scotland’s cricketers. For a side who were being royally thrashed, with little vigour or fight, everyone around me was desperate to defend them, without any care for the facts, figures, and attitudes displayed before them. It was not the plucky young Scotland side they portrayed it as; this was a mediocre group of professionals being taught a lesson by a New Zealand second eleven.

A little earlier in the day, a couple of journalists had staggered in late, having been stuck in traffic, and one proclaimed to the rest of the shed, “We come from civilisation!” rather amusingly. I riposted: “Do you mean Glasgow?”, engaging in the usual Edinburgh-Glasgow rivalry, rather enjoying a fiesty presence in an often empty press box.

“I mean Scotland,” he spat down at me, caring nothing for who I was or for that matter, was.

It reminded of the number of occasions in my life when people had assumed things about me on account of my accent, and how those occasions had become more frequent as the date of Bannockburn drew closer. “What do you know about Scotland?” “Why do you care about Scotland?” “What part of England are you from?” Invariably my answers to these questions have become more and more sarcastic, to the point of rudeness, but I won’t apologise for it. If Scotland finds themselves independent, they will require more friends than enemies, and as the latest polls in England demonstrated, once they’re out, they’re on their own.

Scotland’s attractiveness is one of the few things that make independence viable: its natural and human resources draw people to it, tempt people to appropriate its ways and culture. We should be looking to welcome those who wish to march under our flag, be it a Union or a Saltire, not reject them for fear. 

I shan’t live in Scotland, independent or not, for much longer, or perhaps ever more, and I was sad about that 12 months ago, but christ, you’re making it easier to go.

England vs Sri Lanka: Day 1 Verdict

A glorious day, and a green pitch. Crowds flooding in from all parts of the city, and indeed the world. The heat is intense, the pressure on the home side even more so, the captain walks out to do his country proud. I am talking of course about Alistair Cook doing this morning on cricket’s greatest stage what Thiago Silva will do later this evening on football’s.

The England captain was inserted by his opposite number, in conditions that look summery above, but distinctly spring-like below, and the Sri Lanka attack of steady seamers exploited the early conditions ideally, before England fought back with all the grit which their winter performances lacked, as Root and then Prior put Sri Lanka to the sword in style.

The Debutants

Three men made their bow in international cricket, but none will have felt out of place. Chris Jordan and Moeen Ali were both part of England’s World T20 squad in Bangladesh, while Sam Robson, the captain’s new opening partner, is a Middlesex player familiar with the surroundings of Lords. It was the local man whose day started the earliest, and he spent more time on camera sitting on the balcony, discussing the quality of his coffee; his day will come. Ali had the most successful day, looking serene batting at 6, despite coming in with England precariously poised at 120-4. He played with total confidence, leaving well and playing better, even biffing his first ball against spin in Test cricket for 6 over mid-wicket. It was spin that was his undoing though, and he hung his well-bearded head for a while when he nicked a big loopy half-volley to the jubilant Mahela Jayawardene at slip of the same spinner, Rangana Herath. Chris Jordan we will see in earnest with the ball tomorrow.

The Unsackable Cook

While Cook hasn’t scored a hundred in 21 innings, and in that time averages just 25, he will probably not have felt under much pressure. The changes made to the team mean that he is now totally unmovable, barring injury or illness. Paul Downton, the new England managing director, said in his tea-time interview with Sky Sports that this was Cook’s opporutnity to create “his team”. His chop on to his stumps with 17 to his name was a lazy, self-inflicted delivery, when England needed him to navigate the difficult first session. Before he can build his team, he will need to reconsider his own game. He will need a hundred before the series is over if he doesn’t want to face questions about his own role.

Prior’s Redemption?

Who’d be Matt Prior? He had as bad a winter as any England batsman, made the decision to have an operation on a long-standing Achilles problem, and while still in recovery, a week before the Test squad announcement, the young pretender to his gloves scores a truly magnificent international hundred at the home of cricket. There could not have been a louder siren sounded to the England selectors that Jos Buttler wanted more, and that he was the man in form. However, almost before the hype had started, Chairman Cook deflated it, telling the press that Buttler “isn’t ready” for Test cricket. Is that what he means? Or is it that his old lieutenant Prior is more dangerous as an enemy? Had Prior’s second-ball LBW decision been a millimetre straighter, Cook’s decision-making would have been further questioned. But Prior survived, albeit he continued to look nervy and shaken, as though relearning the game, attempting to run himself out at least once, but he did make 50, and should turn it into a hundred tomorrow.

Our Joe Root

There was one overwhelming positive from the day: the return of Joe Root. He smashed Australia to all parts at Lords last year, but that will have felt many years ago when he came in a 3 down for not many this morning, with ball nibbling around. He seemed, like Prior, to be working on his technique in the middle – the worst place to do so – with conscious efforts to put his foot down the pitch and get forward. There was still a classic back foot punch or two, and he was almost trapped on the crease by Matthews’ gentle medium pacers once or twice. However, he also manoeuvred the ball expertly around, and played some genuinely fluent shots when England were under serious pressure.

How Rangers made the SPL better – by leaving

How are the mighty fallen? In the space of exactly 12 months Rangers went from being one game away from the Champions League main draw to playing their first home game of their Division Three campaign, under a new name, against the heady opposition of semi-professionals East Stirlingshire.

Having just secured the Scottish League One title at a romp, they are now a little more than 12 months from a return to the top flight. However, has the demise of one of the two biggest clubs in Scotland helped the country’s top league more than it has hurt?

The traditional theory goes as follows: Celtic and Rangers, who both draw upwards of 50,000 fans to their home games, dwarfing other attendances in the SPL, are a good thing for Scottish clubs because they pull in television money, as well as providing clubs with an (almost) guaranteed sell-out every time one of the Glasgow clubs comes to town.

When Rangers were demoted to the very bottom of the Scottish Football League, the fear was that it would destroy the already top heavy SPL.

True, Celtic find themselves 21 points clear of Aberdeen at the top, and could in theory have the title wrapped up this month, but they are not the only team in Europe to be in such a situation. Everyone’s new favourite league, the Bundesliga, home of goals, packed stadia, and cheap tickets, is also all but over, as the conquerors of Arsenal, Bayern Munich, are 20 points ahead of their nearest rival, having dropped just four points all season.

People still queue up to tune in to watch BT Sport’s coverage of almost every game in Germany, as well as their long Bundesliga segment on the European Football Show.

What has in fact happened is the teams below Celtic and Rangers appear to have become invigorated by the concept that there is only now one team who are guaranteed to finish above them. Motherwell and Aberdeen are locked in a battle for that second European spot, which Dundee United will also quietly have their eyes on, while Inverness CT, St Johnston, Hibernian, and Kilmarnock are all fighting for a place in the top six.

This added competitive nature is before we mention the financial boon for all those lower league teams who now get to host Rangers once a season.

Terry Butcher, who talks as he played – uncompromisingly – said recently that the Celtic games were a one-off for the other league sides: that he didn’t consider them part of the regular season, as they were so far ahead of the rest.

When there were two teams like that, the four or possibly six games against them had to be treated with the utmost seriousness, but now that it is only two or three games, all of the children in the playground appear to have come to a mutual agreement that they would rather fight each other than the big boy in the corner, who could beat all of them put together.

The SPL had doubtless become dry and uninteresting; now there are real clashes every week, each game actually matters, and barring Celtic, anyone can beat anyone. The hope is now that when (not if) Rangers return to the top-flight, they might find that the boys they used to whip for fun have suddenly become men.

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Listen Carefully: How To Survive A Journalism Work Placement Part 2

Sometimes in any job, you’re going to have quiet periods. If you’re a decent “workie” and get through things quickly, then you are going to find times when there isn’t anything necessarily that you can be trusted with. The temptation at this point is to check Facebook, sit on Twitter (at least that looks useful), and set your fantasy teams for the weekend. In fact, you can be using this “downtime” more effectively.

1) Brainstorm with yourself – If you’ve got an idea you’d like to pitch to someone, spend your time in the office getting it right. Work and work and work on it, and then try and get someone to look at it. You’re in the best place to do it.

2) Be available – It might seem obvious, and sometimes a bit embarrassing, but make sure those around you know that you’re free, and that if they’ve got something they’d rather not do then you’re their guy. Or girl. (Offering to cross-dress is unnecessary.)

3) Listen carefully – Whether you’re in a newsroom or a magazine features desk, everything happening around you is useful. I’m not saying eavesdrop, obviously, but don’t sit there with your Beats on. Soak up all of the information you possibly can; all or at least some of it will be useful to you at some point.

4) Do it once, do it well – If you’re as green as I am, you’re going to get rewrites. You might even get several. However, the less it happens, the better you will feel about yourself and the less of someone else’s time you will take up. Better to take the little bit of time to get something right than look impressive by getting in a bit quicker. Be quick, but don’t rush.

5) Enjoy it – It’s very easy to turn up for these things nervous as hell, intimidated by the environment, and totally unsure of your own abilities, and end up huddled in the fetal position considering your next career choice. If you go in with a negative state of mind, you won’t get anything out of it; go in open-minded and ready for anything, and you might have the time of your life. Be open, be excited, be available. It can’t go wrong. Unless you win the office sweepstake on the Gold Cup. That tends to go down badly…

First Day Nightmare: A Journalism Work Placement Part 1

It is one of those generally accepted truths among students that internships and work experience involve two things: making coffee and photocopies. At The Cricketer magazine, someone else makes the coffee, and they don’t have a photocopier. In some ways, it’s just two fewer things for me to cock up.

My only previous work experience came last summer, when I endured a difficult week working at a local daily newspaper, on the newsdesk. Modern newsdesks are not what they used to be – there are far more screens than the golden era of newspapers – and most people working there and scrambling about either trying to embed in their current job or hang around long enough to find another one. Although I learnt a lot about how to write and report, it took 2 days for anyone except HR to take any notice, and they made no effort to hide the fact that I was a total inconvenience to them. It was an emotionally draining five days.

I had put pressure on myself to make a better stab at this placement; I have read The Cricketer since I was a boy and my early teenage years were spent cutting out pictures of my favourite cricketers and sticking them up all over my bedroom(You’re a weirdo…Ed.), so I arrived at Great Portland Street to start a two week placement at the world’s leading cricket magazine with a few butterflies in my stomach, and having had very little sleep. However, my nerves were quite ill-placed. The publishing assistant showed me round, introduced me to everyone by name, I shook some hands, and then he dumped me on my desk and went downstairs.

The man sitting opposite me was my editor, it transpired, which was a little intimidating. However, the size of my iMac meant that hiding behind it only required a little slouching. There were only two others in the office, and all three of them disappeared into a meeting for half an hour soon into my first day, which provided me with an excellent opportunity take an inordinate number of selfies and to steal everything I wanted to steal. (You’re aware this is pretty incriminating, right?)

On their return I was tasked with a few bits of information gathering to write up, and the opportunity to ring up any number of professional (ex-)cricketers for some minor interviews. It’s fair to say I cocked all of them up: I fail to get anywhere near enough copy of the interview, had to do three rewrites, and then simply failed to grasp the concept of one piece of work. Even so, everyone was very accommodating, and my mistakes were duly pointed out and corrected.

Day Two went considerably better…

Campbell claim clouds valid racism concern

In case you didn’t know, Sol Campbell has a book out. To that end, he has said in an interview he feels his three games as England captain would have been a whole lot more had he been white. Naturally, it has created a huge storm, and everyone involved with football has been forced to question whether Campbell was indeed marginalised because of his race?

It is too easy to dismiss Campbell as a bitter has-been lashing out in whatever way he can. It is so easy to look cynically at his comments as self-serving and promoting his book; the timing of them is no coincidence. Even so, it is disappointing that Campbell felt he had to wait until the launch of his autobiography to speak out about the issue.

The two-time Premier League winner’s claim that he could have been England captain for ten years is fanciful at best, lunacy at worst. Campbell was a very talented defender, few will argue with that. His 70 England caps and numerous major trophies speak to the fact. He even had experience as a captain, briefly at Tottenham and much later in his career at Portsmouth.

However, you would never look upon Campbell as a natural leader, as a man who could single-handedly drag his team through games as the great captains seem to be able to do: names like Shearer, Beckham, and Terry, the captains who mostly led the England teams containing Campbell, all spring to mind. There’s no way you would give the armband to Campbell over those men.

Sadly, Campbell is wrong. His three chances to wear the armband over an England shirt were about right, however, his sensationalist claims provide yet more ammunition for those who would defend football against those who ‘play the race card’.

Institutionalised racism is still a problem within football, if not within the Football Association specifically – a simple fact of the numbers. Black and ethnic minority people are significantly under-represented in the higher echelons of the game, both in clubs and in the FA.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least the hangover from the open racism of football clubs in the 1980s, which would refuse to sign black players, often branding them lazy, arrogant, and unfit. We are still in an era when people from that generation are involved in football clubs, often without the benefit of a re-education on their views of minorities.

Of course there are many other problems in football that lead to racism bubbling under, and sometimes above, the surface, but things are changing, slowly.

Racism is still a problem in English football, and it does need people to speak out about it. Although, Campbell’s ill-founded claims are not backed up by fact, that he feels his view is a reasonable says a lot about the way black players have been treated. We must not write him off as a book-seller, but we must also remember that three games as captain was no less than he deserved.