What would be more satisfying for a coach? To take a bunch of green underachievers through a challenging growth, from character-building defeats to hard-fought near-losses to scrappy wins to finally achieving some respect. Or taking a well-drilled bunch of confident cricketers and sitting back while they do their work without you lifting a finger. The first scenario sounds the more fulfilling (especially if the coach is alcoholic and the gutsy efforts of his proteges convinces him to give up the bottle), but in reality would involve more hair-tearing than satisfaction. Only a saint would find it appealing.
The choice for potential NZ coach/current NSW coach Matthew Mott is not quite as stark. NSW aren't exactly all-conquering (bottom of the Sheffield Shield table). However, after the weekend's game (NSW def. NZ by 6 wickets) he would be a saint for not immediately tearing up any NZ coaching contracts he might have on his desk.
Being beaten by NSW's B-team is fairly embarrassing, and has sent the team into a panic. However, it is just a warm-up, it doesn't count. Warm ups are only there to give the team a bit of practice and to sort out any problems with the team. In that respect, the loss to the NSW juniors was a great victory – everyone got some time at the crease and we worked out that our fragile batting is more of a liability than our weak bowling.
The loss doesn't bode well for the test series however, but then that doesn't tell us anything we didn't know.
Let's quickly preview the series.
We have two tests in the series, at Brisbane and Adelaide. This is identical to the tour in 2004 (including being preceded by a tour to Bangladesh), a series where Australia handed us defeats by an inns & 156 runs and by 213 runs. A more recent series, at home in 2005, gave similarly discouraging results, two losses by 9 wickets and a rained out thrashing. Going back through history, 2001 in Aus was Fleming's famous poke in Waugh's eye, but even that was only a series of three draws. We have to go back to 1993 to find our last victory against Australia, with Aus being led by Alan Border and our bowling headed up by Danny Morrison.
Now, Australia – just returned from being given a good spanking by a fired-up India – is a team in free-fall. They have clearly been greatly weakened by recent retirements, their captain is lacking confidence and there are dangerous divisions within the team. However, this will do little to bridge the gap between the teams, it is just too great. Consider also that the last time we toured Australia (that 2004 series I mentioned above) we had a fantastically stronger team, with Richardson, Fleming, Franklin, Astle and Oram playing, and we still got thrashed. The decline in the Aussies since 2004 has been more than matched in the Black Caps. So we should probably expect similar results.
Players to watch
Vettori: First test series against Aus as captain. How will his leadership and tactics compare with Ponting's?
Taylor: First series against Aus. Taylor's going to be carrying the NZ batting crew in the years to come; wouldn't we like to see him do it right now.
O'Brien: The star of 2008 and our secret weapon.
Symonds: First series back from his alcohol-fuelled meltdown and raring to repair his reputation. First test series against NZ believe it or not.
Lee/Johnson/Clark/Watson: So who is Australia's main strike bowler now? Who's going to rise to the top?