I interviewed the current New Zealand Cricket captain Dan Vettori late last year for my employer, Barkers Men’s Clothing (you can read the better, fancier feature at the Barkers blog), and thought I’d post the transcript of the interview for your reading pleasure. Bear in mind that the interview was conducted four months ago, so there was still hope for the season at the time. Or that faint patina of hope that all New Zealand Cricket fans know and ‘love’.
That soon faded. But the thrill of interviewing Vettori never will. He was an exceptionally impressive fellow, well-spoken, thoughtful, opinionated… Everything you’d like a sportsman to be, but so rarely encounter. I happened to be reading Michael Lewis’ excellent sabermetrics tribute Moneyball at the time, and self-consciously had it lying on the table between us when he came down. I figured it was as good a way as any to see how curious he was. I figure most All Blacks don’t even look at the book. Dan Vettori not only looked at it, he made keen observations about its content (tragically before I switched my dictaphone on) and had, in fact read it twice, the second time after he had made a concerted effort to appreciate the intricacies of baseball so as to see what that new knowledge altered in terms of his appreciation for the book.
Which is just great. We’ve now had two straight captains who are serious students of the game – but not just the game they happen to excel at, but games in general. For a side like the Black Caps, cursed by population and temperament to never have the resources our opposition has at their beck and call, this attribute is incredibly important. God knows where we’d be without his influence. Anyway, without further rumination, here is the transcript of our conversation,
DeadBall: Why did you decide to become a spinner in a country whose pitches are generally so ill-suited to the discipline?
Vettori: I think in the end it was the realisation that I wasn’t going to go far with my fast bowling. I wasn’t all that quick. I was making some rep teams, and my first XI coach asked if I wanted to give it a go, and when I did it all felt pretty natural, and I actually really enjoyed bowling that way. Plus I had instant success, which always helps. It just snowballed from there really, it was a pretty quick apprenticeship from starting bowling spin at 15 to playing for New Zealand at 18.
DeadBall: What attracted you to cricket in the first place?
Vettori: Firstly, most people follow an older brother, and my older brother played. We lived in Australia when I was young, and cricket’s pretty dominant over there, so you had no choice really. That’s what you played. So my brother and I played it all the time, and really enjoyed it, it started from there. When we moved back to New Zealand it was pretty much the same.
DeadBall: Who were your idols growing up?
Vettori: Initially it was John Bracewell. I really loved the way he played the game, how aggressive he was. He always wanted to be in the game, and play a decisive role in it. Then I suppose as I got a bit older when Shane Warne came onto the scene, it was a similar sort of thing really. He tried to dominate the game, and get involved in every single aspect of it. In the past it seemed like people thought of the spinner as someone who would come on late in the game and bowl a few overs before the new ball came along. That’s always the way it was perceived,” he spits the word out as if he suffered through that attitude a little coming up. “So to see Shane Warne come along and completely dominate – even though we bowl completely differently – was pretty appealing. I think that appealed to a lot of people.
DeadBall: The role of the spinner in New Zealand cricket has frequently been one of containment, to plug an end and frustrate batsmen into a loose stroke, but from the first you were used in a pretty aggressive capacity. Why was that?
Vettori: “Two things made things made it relatively easy. The fact that Stephen Fleming started captaining the team in my second test, and Steve Rixon was the coach. Steve Rixon was a pretty aggressive guy, and he wanted me to be taking wickets. Stephen was relatively new, so he always allowed me to set my fields, he trusted me that I knew what I was doing, even at a young age. Having those two people on early on made a huge difference.”
DeadBall: Of all the coaches you’ve played under, who did you enjoy the most?
Vettori: “I think Steve, because I came into the side at a young age, and he really looked after me. But he pushed me pretty hard at the same time. I think most people respond well to that sort of treatment. So looking back on it I think he was great for my development, and I think probably the guys in the team realised that as well. Coaches can be great for different stages of people’s career, and I think it all came together, and Steve worked really well for that group of guys.”
DeadBall: Currently there’s no coach, after the Andy Moles situation. How do you feel about that scenario? Is it a situation you’re comfortable with for anything other than a short period of time?
Vettori: “There’s a number of different ways you can look at it. You can keep going along with no coach, and hope that what we’re doing keeps working, and we keep winning. But I still think there’s an important role a coach could play, I don’t think a captain can fulfil all the roles, and I think a coach like Steve Rixon could get in the background,” he says pointedly, suggesting that the very public statements from many of our coaches since Dennis Aberhart have rankled with senior players. “And work with guys, work on their games, get them confident, get them believing in their own games, and also work on their technique at different stages when they need it.
So the coach plays an extremely important role within the team. I think though that in the past all sports teams have put the coach as the pinnacle of the team, and I think in a lot of ways it’s better if he’s in the background, working hard with players, rather than being the front all the time.”
DeadBall: While you were picked at a ridiculously young age, of late some of the most promising young players – I’m thinking about Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder and Kane Williamson particularly here – have had to wait their turn when they were putting enough runs up that suggested they might have been ready. Why the conservative selections?
Vettori: “It’s always been talked about that there’s a conservatism in New Zealand cricket, and I do think that Steve Rixon probably played a huge role in the fact that I was picked at 18. But I think it was also that I was a spin bowler, and that we hadn’t had a lot of successful ones, so it was more that there was a desire to give that discipline, that spin bowling discipline a chance. With the batting group, there’s always a group of guys around who’ve been relatively successful, and so there’s a desire to get these young guys to learn at first class level, to have a proven first class record before they step into it. So it’s always a bit of a balancing act, but that probably the reason why I was given more of a chance, at a young age, than maybe a batter or a swing bowler is.”
DeadBall: Was it difficult to step into the ca[tain’s shoes, given the huge shadow your predecessor cast, and the somewhat mishandled transition?
Vettori: “It was a little bit difficult [to replace Stephen Fleming], but I think in the end the fact that we were close friends helped. Probably in a lot of ways I’ve tried to emulate his captaincy style. The big difference is that he’s a batter and I’m a bowler, which probably lends itself to a different dynamic. I was lucky to play underneath him for so long, to watch his style and the way he wanted to do things. The big thing he brought to the team was a calmness, and a desire to win. I think if I can instill that in the team now, because a lot of the guys in the team have never played under him, I think that will be a legacy of his as well as mine.”
DeadBall: You’ve come a long with with the bat after starting your career at 11. Is it hard being the side’s captain, its best bowler and batsman?
Vettori: “I was a little bit embarrassed to be batting at 11, and my record wasn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be. I’ve always had the desire to improve it, and I still do. But I prefer to see someone else in our top six or our top four take over that role as the senior batsman, because I think I’ve got enough on my plate. I don’t want to diminish my responsibility to score runs, no matter where I bat, but with Ross Taylor and Brendan McCullum really stepping up into those roles, if I can keep playing the way I have that complements what they do.”
DeadBall: Despite your rise up the order you’ve retained a somewhat strange technique. To watch you bat, I’m sure a lot of bowlers must think you’re an easy target, yet you tend to be very tough to get out.
Vettori: “I think there’s definitely a lot of frustrated bowlers out there who look at me and think taking my wicket should be a lot easier than it’s turning out to be. And I know myself there are some batsmen I look at and I think ‘I could get this guy out at any time’, then I look up at the scoreboard and he’s on 50 or 60. I think it’s a great compliment that I can bat like that, that I can frustrate a team and put a score on the board. I think the fact that I score quickly is a great help to the team too. I think now that teams are coming prepared, coming with a plan, whereas when I first started I was just the number eight batsmen, ‘let’s get through him and put our feet up’.
“That’s certainly changed, and it’s probably changed around the world, where you see eight, nine and ten batsmen can handle the bat, and they take pride in it. I think you saw in this last test match that Bond and O’Brien worked just as hard as anyone at their batting, and they want to be known as guys who can hold up an end, and score runs.”
DeadBall: In some ways that dovetails with the scrappy nature of New Zealand Cricket, with the bulk of our runs often coming after the top six and us fielding like demons.
Vettori: “I sense a number of times when we’ve bowled and had teams 100 for five, like in the first test against Pakistan, and we maybe thought it was gonna be a lot easier than it turned out to be. A partnership can come together, and it completely changes the game. That happens a lot in cricket, and whether it’s guys getting tired because they’ve bowled a long spell, or guys thinking it’s going to be easier bowling against lower order batsmen. But I think teams are becoming a lot more aware of how hard lower order batsmen work on their game, and that they have to plan and scout for them just like they would a top order batsman.”
DeadBall: How do you prevent a team relaxing when they’ve got a big wicket?
Vettori: “Shout at them,” he laughs. “No, I think you’ve got to keep them aware, especially the bowlers, because they’re the ones that lead the field, if you like. If they’re on top of their game then the fielders are hungry for the ball, and they’re anticipating it. When it’s going a little bit awry and the bowlers are getting hit for four you can feel the whole atmosphere flatten, and it gets more and more difficult to get it back. So trying to keep on top of that, trying to tap guys on the back and say ‘get us through the session, keep your energy up’. There’s responsibility on the bowlers to make sure they put the ball in the right areas, and keep them from being too aggressive. If they put the ball in the right areas enough times, 99% of the time that works, as opposed to something miraculous, or trying something completely different.”
DeadBall: How long would you like to keep playing and what comes next?
Vettori: “I’d like to play test cricket as long as I can. The limited forms of the game I might not play as long. But there’s so many different forms of the game around at the moment, I think it would be wrong to not acknowledge the IPL and the remuneration it can deliver. Guys want to be involved in it, and I’m no different, while playing as much test cricket as I can. In terms of when that time’s up, I suppose in some ways it’s up to me, in some ways it’s up to the selectors, but I’d love to play til I’m 35, around that time, and I’m not sure what to do after that. I hope that I’m in the position where I can take some time away from the game and decide what I want to do. Because I don’t want to get back into the game instantly like a lot of people do, I’d rather be away from it for a long time and maybe come back to it. It’s just one of those things, but hopefully that day’s as far away as possible.”
DeadBall: Do you share the traditionalists abhorrence of the esteem with which Twenty20 seems to be held by young players?
Vettori: “Not too much. I think people are just a product of their environment, so I think it’s more a slight on administrators that they haven’t got the balance right. You should be able to play all three forms of the game, and you should be able to aspire just as highly to all three. Twenty2o offers more remuneration, and that’s great, but I think good players are still good enough to play all three forms of the game, and I think that should continue. But I think it’s wrong to blame an 18, 19-year-old coming into the game for wanting to play the game they see on TV. They’re just products of their environment, and if administrators could clean it all up then it wouldn’t be an issue.”
DeadBall: What’s it like to play in in the IPL?
Vettori: “It’s very different. It’s quite fun, but it’s very different to a New Zealand Cricket Team. Obviously people are coming from different cultures, and they have different ways of doing things. Trying to mash that together can be challenging at times, but then there’s things like on my team seeing guys like Gambhir and Sehwag batting together, and how they go about it is pretty amazing. And it’s an opportunity you wouldn’t have got three or four years ago. I think the guys who are involved are relishing it. And also you get to play in front of 60-70,000 people, which is not something a New Zealand cricketer gets to do all that often. And you’re part of that Indian scene, that hysteria in a lot of ways. You’re part of their side, and they treat you like an Indian in a lot of ways. You’re playing for Delhi, and that’s what matters most to them.”
DeadBall: Looking back, what would you describe as your career highlights?
Vettori: “Reaching the 300 wicket, 3000 runs club was something which started to pop into my head a few years ago, and to achieve it relatively quickly was really satisfying. I’ve always been a statistically driven person, that’s always been a big part of my game, so that was huge from an individual standpoint. I think from a team perspective winning the test series in ’99 in England, and winning a test at Lords, I suppose those are times in New Zealand cricket history which won’t be forgotten for a long time.”
DeadBall: Finally, are there any burning ambitions you’d like to knock off before you retire?
Vettori: “As a captain, I’d love to lift a trophy. A World Cup win would be amazing for New Zealand cricket. But I sense within the team, that a test series win against Australia or South Africa, or even India is pretty important to everyone, and I think it would show that our game’s improving in the right areas. So I think if we could achieve one of those, as well as me contributing individually, that’s pretty important.”