LEFT ARM OVER
Different roads brought Kiwis and Proteas to same place — putting team above all else
These two teams may play as though it is a matter of life and death but much of their current success is because they know it is not, writes Neil Manthorp
The players in the Proteas and Black Caps national squads find themselves in a remarkably similar position in many ways, but for very different reasons and through an exceptionally different journey.
Both are consequently among the most firmly bound in recent history with a selfless willingness to place the team and its fortunes far above any desire for individual success. How did they get there?
New Zealand’s comes from two places. The first is a historic feeling of inadequacy, which stems from living in the shadow of the All Blacks and, for that matter, several other sporting codes and pastimes.
Sailing even rivals cricket for the number of registered participants, but cricket has somehow hung in there over the decades despite falling into several patches of deep decline.
It took 22 losses and 22 draws spanning 26 years before they won their first Test match – against a West Indies team in 1956 that included Garry Sobers among other dignitaries of the game – and high points continued to be sporadic among the many lows for decades to come.
The public expected failure and developed a condescending Kiwi version of our "ag, shame, at least they tried", view of their team’s results.
Cricketers tolerated it and accepted their status as a mildly eccentric minority that was frequently frustrated by unfavourable weather.
Several captains and coaches made serious but unsustainable attempts to change this culture, notably Martin Crowe and Stephen Fleming, but they lacked the numbers in support needed to make a long-term difference.
The second trigger that sparked change came when results plunged to record lows, notably when they were bowled out for 45 in a Test in Cape Town four years ago.
The captain, Brendon McCullum, saw a dejected and miserable group of cricketers, and not just because of the result. They had forgotten how to have fun playing the game they once loved.
Instead of reading the riot act, he asked them to remember their youth when they laughed and cheered, celebrating each other’s efforts and achievements.
In long-standing friend Mike Hesson, McCullum was able to see his desire for the innocence and fun of youth welded to a modern, steely professionalism that maximised every ounce of ability in the players giving the team the best possible chance of victory.
McCullum and Hesson asked the players for a total and selfless commitment to the team above all personal ambition. Mavericks, however talented, have not been tolerated. New Zealand cricket’s results in the preceding 70 years have never come close to those of the past three years.
SA’s players also had two "triggers" for their recent renaissance, and one of them was also a shadow. The senior players had grown tired of being compared to past greats such as Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher. It was time to move on and, with respect, leave those great players behind once and for all.
It was time for them to make their history and that is what they resolved to do.
The second trigger was what they refer to as "politics", a handy cover-all that blankets any decisions made from outside the immediate squad that affects them as cricketers or people.
The most damaging and painful of these was, of course, the composition of the XI to play the World Cup semifinal two years ago against, ironically, New Zealand.
The official imposition of playing "targets" on the national team in 2016 was another that seriously affected the psychological security and emotional wellbeing of the players but the doubts and uncertainties were, remarkably, to be turned into powerful forces for change and good.
Unable to acknowledge never mind talk about their feelings in public, the squad did so to each other at what was labelled a "culture camp" in August 2016.
"They say we are white, black, African… they give us labels, is that what we are? Is that how we see ourselves? Is that what we want to be?"
No, it was not. For the first time, the fallout from the semifinal defeat was really discussed. Players who had doubts, of any sort, opened up about them.
As the New Zealanders had done, they spoke about the dreams they had as young boys and what it meant to them now to be playing for their country. They vowed, like McCullum and Hesson’s team, to play for each other, not themselves.
Their results since August 2016 have been nothing less than astonishing.
Now they are going head-to-head in five ODIs and three Tests, preceded by a T20 at Eden Park, where they produced that epic semifinal contest in March 2015. There will be passion, pain and commitment, but there will also be laughter and smiles.
These two teams may play as though it is a matter of life and death but much of their current success is because they know it is not.