I guess it was only fitting that Bracewell’s final test as coach ended in the sort of humiliating, inexcusable capitulation that we’ve become inured to over the past five years. It seems almost quaint to think of that period in the early 2000s when we were a couple of test series wins away from challenging for the number one ranking (it actually happened, believe me).
In those days I could recite the home and away series results that fed into our rating (106 in September ’03, just prior to Bracewell’s takeover, with only South Africa on 116 and Australia on 129 ahead; it’s a paltry 81 now), and had in my head the permutations which would allow us to rise. Weird, sure, but the Black Caps were the kind of team that demanded such fandom back then.
Now, with the meek, uninspiring test cricket we’ve been trotting out taking us to eighth in the world (only Bangladesh are below us – their ICC ranking figure: 0), we face a massive rebuilding process to even become competitive again.
The problem with the transfer of power from one coach to another is that you don’t get the chance to really assess their impact, particularly in such a drawn-out sport as cricket, until you’re in a desperately big hole. Bracewell was brought on to bolster our one day side, to perhaps bring us the big prize (we’d won the ICC Trophy already, a miracle that felt like our maximum potential) that any national board (outside of Australia, for obvious reasons) covets above all else for its ability to attract sponsorship dollars.
On that measure alone, he’s been a miserable failure.
We now sit fifth on the ODi rankings, when he began his tenure we were equal fourth. Coming into the post he had had incredible success with Gloucester, leading it to three Gillette trophies around the turn of the decade, but again, it was to the detriment of the longer form of the game (which admittedly, since W.G. Grace’s time, hasn’t been a county strong-point). From this era we got the worst of all worlds: the swagger and taciturn arrogance of the champion coach without the results to back it up; the decimation of our test side tolerated for the expected one day bounty that never came; worst of all we watched a generation of cricketers, perhaps the deepest in our history, gone far too soon from the test side.
Professional dissident Martin Crowe has come out swinging at Bracewell on Radio Sport, unsurprisingly, but to hear the delicate, measured tones of Nathan Astle lamenting the coach’s performance this morning with Telfer was a surprise. Astle’s far more even-tempered and circumspect than Crowe or Fleming, as far as recent batting titans go, so for him to come out on record speaks volumes for the depth of feeling Bracewell’s reign has generated.
The fact is, as a tiny country with a small player base down the arse end of the world, we’re always going to struggle internationally. Five years ago New Zealand had a group of cricketers who played together incredibly well, lead by the best captain in the world and composed of cricketers whose performances belied the sum of their stats and talents on a regular basis. But while the likes of Fleming, Vettori, Astle, Oram, Styris, Bond, McCullum and Cairns may not have been the very best cricketers in the world, they were probably the most talented extended group New Zealand has ever produced, and through hard work and discipline had dragged themselves to point whereby they were actually incredibly hard to defeat.
They made teams battle for every inch, the star studded Indians came through in 2002 and got rolled two tests to nil because they simply looked at our respective line-ups and did not believe we could do it. That three test drawn series in Australia, which went within an Ian Robinson abomination of sliding our way was the closest any team got to challenging that Australian team around that time. Vettori’s current Black Caps side, with no senior batsmen to instill belief in his young charges, fail to value their wickets, and simply have no belief that they can achieve anything beyond turgid mediocrity.
It’s sad as hell, because these circumstances are extremely unlikely to happen again. It was a generation of cricketers and a moment in time. With the passing of these five years so goes our opportunity to play the greatest cricket any of us might ever see from New Zealand. Many would argue that you can’t put all the blame at Bracewell’s door (he wants to blame the rise of the Indian 20/20 comps; in truth the rot started far before then), but that number of active cricketers retiring from international duty doesn’t happen for nothing. Maybe Andy Moles can tempt a couple back, but the moment has gone, surely. All that’s left now is to mourn it, and settle in for that familiar feeling from the mid-’90s, brief interludes of hope coupled with long passages of despair.