Aussies thrive on sledging – Black Caps just thrive
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.
Australian wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, middle, sledges Black Caps batsman Grant Elliott in the World Cup final in 2015.