Aussies thrive on sledg­ing – Black Caps just thrive

Sunday Star-Times - - Sport - PHIL GIF­FORD

The New Zealand cricket team is a per­fect ex­am­ple of what hap­pens when a cul­ture grows nat­u­rally from in­side the squad. On the other hand, try to im­pose a cul­ture, es­pe­cially one that’s alien, and you get the sad­sack mob cur­rently play­ing for Aus­tralia.

For decades, New Zealand cricket teams fol­lowed the English model, where deco­rum was im­por­tant. Then there was a switch to be­ing sec­ond-hand Aussies, brash and in your face.

The prob­lem was the Aus­tralian teams had the re­sults to go with the nig­gle. But try­ing to sledge when you’re mak­ing 45 runs in a test in­nings against South Africa in 2013 in Cape Town just made the Black Caps look like dick­heads.

They im­proved af­ter that dis­as­ter, in ev­ery re­spect. New cap­tain Bren­don McCul­lum de­ter­mined it was time for changes and the team agreed.

But the cru­cial turn­ing point, to be­ing the re­spected team they are now, punch­ing miles above their weight, came in Oc­to­ber, 2014, when the Black Caps went to Mel­bourne, four months be­fore the Cricket World Cup in Aus­tralia and New Zealand, to check out the Mel­bourne Cricket Ground, a venue many had never played at.

Af­ter the MCG visit, back at their ho­tel, they gath­ered in a con­fer­ence room and, steered by McCul­lum and coach Mike Hes­son, set out, as then se­nior pace­man Kyle Mills re­calls: ‘‘to work out what a New Zealan­der who was a cricket fan would like to see us do. We de­cided we wouldn’t fol­low the English model, nor the Aus­tralian one. We’d try to find a New Zealand way’’.

With that aim the group soon had a pow­er­ful, and what would prove to be a suc­cess­ful, list.

With the ball they’d be ag­gres­sive, set­ting at­tack­ing fields, aim­ing to take wick­ets.

With the bat they’d try to at­tack too, look­ing to play a nat­u­ral game, and be en­ter­tain­ing.

In the field they’d throw ev­ery­thing at the ball. ‘‘If that meant some­times you’d crash into an ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ing try­ing to save a four, so be it,’’ says Mills.

And they’d drop the con­fronta­tional, faux bully-boy stuff, let­ting how they played do the talk­ing for them.

Hes­son and cap­tain McCul­lum made sure the ju­nior play­ers of­fered opin­ions, so from vet­eran to rookie ev­ery team mem­ber felt in­cluded. ‘‘That was a big change,’’ says Mills. ‘‘When I first came into the Black Caps I don’t think I spoke in team meet­ings for two years.

‘‘In cricket there can be di­vi­sions be­tween bowlers and bat­ters. We de­cided to stop all that rub­bish. Lit­tle things started hap­pen­ing on the field, like a bat­ter get­ting a bowler’s hat for him, so the bowler didn’t have to traipse back and get it’’.

If that sounds crazily triv­ial, yes, in one way it is. But, a bit like the way Steve Hansen started the All Blacks sweep­ing out their chang­ing shed af­ter a test, the sym­bol­ism is much more im­por­tant than the ac­tion. The small ges­tures add up to a much larger sum in good­will, unity, and at­ti­tude.

The re­sults for the Black Caps soon matched the good in­ten­tions. Against long odds, the next time they were at the MCG was to play the World Cup fi­nal against Aus­tralia in March, 2015.

Just as im­por­tantly they’d won the hearts

Aus­tralian cricket is at its best when it’s bel­liger­ent.

and minds of Ki­wis. It wasn’t quite as dra­matic as Sally Field sob­bing ‘‘You like me’’ at the Os­cars, but at air­ports and in the street dur­ing the World Cup, the Black Caps sud­denly found fans beam­ing at them, and say­ing how much they were en­joy­ing the tour­na­ment.

When the Aus­tralians were caught cheat­ing in South Africa last March, coach Dar­ren Lehmann tear­fully suggested they should ‘‘take a leaf out of some­one like, say New Zealand’s book, in the way they play and re­spect the op­po­si­tion.’’

Nice idea Dazza, and it’s one that seems to be be­ing used in the cur­rent team.

But the big prob­lem is surely that it just doesn’t work, not for Aus­tralian crick­eters. Right now they look like guys play­ing on eggshells, de­ter­mined to be mod­els of good be­hav­iour. No won­der South African Dean El­gar would sneer last April that the Aussies try­ing to re-in­vent them­selves was proof that ‘‘nice guys come sec­ond’’.

The re­al­ity is that Aus­tralian cricket is at its best when it’s bel­liger­ent. It didn’t mean they have to be cheats. Guys like Rod Marsh (who tried to talk Greg Chap­pell out of get­ting Trevor Chap­pell to de­liver the in­fa­mous un­der­arm ball) was a per­fect ex­am­ple of a fair dinkum Ocker bat­tler who never took a step back, but wasn’t a dick ei­ther.

Cheat­ing with sand­pa­per was such a big leap over the line from scrap­pers to scum­bags, that a ma­jor cor­rec­tion was des­per­ately needed.

But the trans­for­ma­tion in the Aus­tralian side from swag­ger to sweet­hearts feels im­posed from the top, not some­thing that grew or­gan­i­cally in­side the team.

The Black Caps change for good was a prod­uct of their own free will, and it ex­pressed who they ac­tu­ally were.

Aus­tralia at the mo­ment are pre­tend­ing to be some­thing they’re not, and they aren’t play­ing like Aus­tralians. No won­der they’re strug­gling.

GETTY IM­AGES

Aus­tralian wick­et­keeper Brad Haddin, mid­dle, sledges Black Caps bats­man Grant El­liott in the World Cup fi­nal in 2015.

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