Rob Cribb | 6:46am gmt 09 Apr 2008
New Zealand are set to embark on what will be a fascinating return tour of England. While the tour itself doesn't start for approximately three weeks, there has already been much discussion relating to it, particularly the makeup of New Zealand's Test squad. While the introduction of new players in the batting has been widely heralded by fans and commentators alike, one must ask if it was a change for the sake of better or a change for the sake of change.
The contrast between the selectorial processes for the Test and ODI sides respectively is very evident. As is often the case, the New Zealand one day squad maintains continuity and consistency in its makeup with any changes seeming to follow a somewhat logical process, while the Test squad has been victim to a series of knee-jerk reactions and short-sighted, whimful selections, particularly to the batting. This has often been attributed to, or even justified by, the large gaps between Test series, and even the simple fact that the one day team has been much more successful. The former has certainly not been true over the last three series, however, and the latter is much more likely to be a by-product of poor selectorial processes than a cause of them.
At first glance, the changes to the Test squad do not look unjustified. Matthew Bell departs for Aaron Redmond, Peter Fulton replaces Mathew Sinclair and Daniel Flynn comes in for Grant Elliott, while James Marshall has been named in the squad as a potential replacement for retiring ex-captain Stephen Fleming. That's three players who had poor home series against England and a retiree being replaced with batsmen coming off good domestic seasons. However, upon closer inspection, the selections lack any real conviction or perspective. Players need to know the selectors will back them through a potentially tough initial tough period when selected, as the more comfortable you can make a new player, or even more-so a recalled player, the better chance he will have of performing. Add in the simple fact that selectors do not have the right to change their minds on a player based on so little evidence and the ever-changing nature of New Zealand's batting lineup becomes its own worst enemy.
Matthew Bell is an interesting if not puzzling case. Recalled for the series against Bangladesh after showing excellent domestic form, Bell stroked a hundred in his comeback innings and went on to the score the most runs by a New Zealander in the series. Given the opening problems that have plagued the New Zealand Test squad since Mark Richardson's retirement, it looked as if Bell would be given an extended run. One series later, however, and he finds himself out of the squad yet again. Admittedly, Bangladesh are not strong opposition and his technique looked awful against England, but his dropping, like many others, lacks conviction and is void of genuine selectorial process. Even when all looked lost against England, Bell managed to salvage a half century against in his last innings, yet this was not enough to save him. The decision to drop Bell was a popular one but the process in which it happened was exceedingly poor, regardless of whether he is Test standard or not, as an extended run was not granted. Enter Bell's replacement, Aaron Redmond - a 29 year old opener with a First Class average of 31. Sure, he's been in good form for the last two seasons, but Bell has in fact been in better form and has a much more convincing looking career record. Worse still is the fact that Bell's axing will hang over Redmond's head as well, with the constant reminder that one bad series could see his head roll like all those before him.
Mathew Sinclair's Test career, which is most likely all but over, typifies the problem. The second half of his career is a perfect example of the effect such poor processes in selection can have on a player. He's had more recalls than the average Labrador, each more disappointing than the last, but the second half of what could have been a very good Test career is a monster New Zealand cricket brought upon themselves. Let's not muck around here; Mathew Sinclair was the best First Class batsmen in New Zealand of his generation, and proved he could score big runs at Test level early in his career, even if not with the upmost consistently. He was often described as very nervous at the crease early in his innings and this phenomenon got worse as his career went on, but the explanation is a simple one. Being a Test batsman is a hard enough occupation without the ghosts of one's previous failures compounded by a lack of confidence and patience from the selectors and a growing misguided opinion amongst the public that you've been given too many chances. New Zealand cricket can call Sinclair a disappointment if they like, but in truth he was a good batsman ruined by the constant back flipping of short-sighted selectors. The fact that the chances never constituted what one would call an extended run barring his first stint meant that the selectors had no choice but to recall him over and over again - even at times as an opener; a role he was completely unsuited to. His career was typified by his dropped after being recalled for one Test against South Africa - a Test in which he scored 74 and 21. It really does say it all, and although Sinclair's career could be examined in much more detail, the main thing the selectors should learn from Sinclair is that players have to be backed for extended periods or their own mind games will overtake their ability. It should be noted that despite backing him time and time again, I am not suggesting Sinclair should have definitely been selected for the England tour as such as it quite evident he has deteriorated as a Test batsman quite possibly beyond repair, although I still firmly believe he would be a better option than Daniel Flynn, who averaged less in First Class cricket than Sinclair did in Test cricket until last week, or James Marshall, who still does. What is being suggested is that the selectors recognise the mistake they made with him and ensure it does not happen to other players.
One can only hope the next generation is handled with more faith and conviction than the last. Fans and indeed selectors love the hope a new player brings; there's always the remote chance of him being world class - but the cost of too many changes too regularly can be huge, particularly when selecting those unproven even at First Class level. Whilst the selections of Flynn, Redmond and Marshall are highly dubious, they should be backed for an extended time and be given an extended opportunity to either cement their places or fail. Bell and Elliott were dropped somewhat prematurely, so they will probably be back for the ride as well. Good luck.