Back in NZ, where everyone knows Richard Hadlee

Last New Zealand cricket season I received some angry responses to this column from Kiwis who thought that I had been a bit harsh in my descriptions of the lack of excitement in the land of the silver fern. But having been before, I knew to expect scenic landscapes and one-horse towns this time around. And I must say I am really enjoying myself.

When the luggage X-ray operator at Christchurch airport saw on my immigration card that I was in the country to follow the cricket, he told me that he himself was a cricket journalist for 25 years and that he had been at school with Richard Hadlee. I told him that I thought this India series would be close, he said: “I couldn’t give two hoots about it anymore!”

I don’t know what drove him from cricket writing to X-raying luggage for biltong and hiking boots (if they find you with these they take them out and give them to the bio-hazard people to give them good clean for you – a most handy service). But what I do know is that when I hopped on the bus into town and I asked the driver how he thought the Black Caps would fare against the visiting Indians, he told me that he too had been at school with Richard Hadlee.

Now I would have been impressed by this kind of co-incidence on my first trip but, knowing that New Zealand is just one small village on two medium-sized islands, I wasn’t the least bit surprised that the first two Kiwis I had a chat to had been to school with New Zealand’s best ever fast bowler and all-rounder. I also wasn’t surprised that when he answered my question about who would come up tops in the upcoming series, he said: “I’m not bothered, I’d rather be surfing in Jeffrey’s Bay with your lot, mate”.

New Zealanders are great sportsmen and sports fans but, while they like a bit of cricket in the summer, it’s rugby that they are crackers about for the rest of the year. The summer is not very long and the Super 14 rugby tournament is already in full swing. But while Hadlee’s classmates aren’t too bothered about the cricket, this is a potentially huge series on our hands.

Everyone likes to host a tour from India because that is where the money is in cricket and because with the profit sharing structure of ICC series, New Zealand Cricket will earn half of the broadcast rights fees generated from the series. Because India is playing, this translates to a windfall of some $25 million for NZ Cricket. That is a lot of money for a cricket union with only a few hundred professional cricketers.

It is also a lot of money to pay for the rights to broadcast endless drizzle at little grounds with drop-in pitches, 45 metre boundaries, a handful of spectators and a few advertisements for local paint and hardware stores.

With bit of luck they’ll spend some of it on replacing old benches with chairs and putting internet connections and lights in some of the cricket ground’s press boxes!

New Zealand is friendly, beautiful, cosmopolitan, clean and extremely well catered to tourism. The sports section of the newspaper is the same size as the rest of the paper and they make good beer. It’s also not an outrageously expensive place to visit since the old credit crunch crept up on us. A year ago a US dollar bought you $1,25NZ. Today a Yankee dollar buys you two kiwi dollars and I haven’t noticed much inflation – all good reasons to start planning your trip to the Rugby World Cup here in 2011.

Value for money wouldn’t have been Preity Zinta’s primary reason for being on holiday in New Zealand. I had the chance to enjoy a few words with her before play today in Napier and the Mohali Punjab Kings IPL franchise owner told me she is just out here on a bit of a holiday. The A-list Bollywood actress of 36 feature pictures said she has loved going to cricket since the IPL got her into the game. I was jealous after seeing the bombshell give Yuvraj a hug so I asked her if she would come out and paint the Napier town red with me tonight. She said yes but I have a feeling she’s going to stand me up.

While I am name dropping, another very exciting thing happened to me today. Mark Greatbatch came over and gave me a big shiny red homegrown apple. It had a sticker with a picture of him that says “Mark Greatbatch – Cricket Legend, 1987-1997”. I remember him well because I was secretly listening to some Radio 2000 live Test commentary aged 11 in maths class when I got into trouble for laughing out loudly. The reason I was laughing was that Greatbatch was so slow in chasing a ball to the boundary that Jonty Rhodes and his partner ran five runs, without any overthrows.

Over the past few days, cricket lovers around the world have been able to do what’s good for them: watch the civilised game virtually around the clock. Simultaneous Test matches in Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies (in order of where the sun comes up first). Pure bliss if you live in South Africa or England, countries where for a little bit of money every month you get this sort of thing on your satellite television.

A bad country to be in at such a time is New Zealand where none of these matches was broadcast, even though Sky TV here has something like seven sports channels. This is very good for Cricket 365’s ratings as desperate fans sit up following our commentary all night but I think this lack of international cricket on the telly would even put my mother off moving here.

In every other country I have visited over the past year my clever phone has automatically picked up 3G internet on whichever pay as you go mobile network I have used. But in New Zealand, there is only one mobile phone network and GPRS/3G is only available to residents on a two-year contract. It’s fair to say that for a developed country with high levels of GDP per capita, the place is a bit backward. No wonder the rate of Kiwi emigration (mostly to Australia) is the highest it has ever been.

But it is also no surprise that New Zealand currently gains about 3000 more inhabitants than it loses every month. Immigration is needed to stimulate the economy and there are plenty of people who put their hand up to move to this green and pleasant land where work is easy to come by and the government looks after its residents generously.

A majority of this immigration comes from India, the very country against which the Black Caps are currently doing battle. There must be far more Hindi than Maori spoken in New Zealand and I was amused when Daniel Vettori, a captain who never puts his foot in it, joked that it would be a home series for the visitors. I don’t think he was supposed to say that but it does seem that way at times.

In terms of the conditions however, this is anything but a home series for India. Indeed the principle reason for India’s weak performances in New Zealand over the years has been the fact that the pitches and weather could not be more alien to anyone from the sub-continent. Slow drop-in pitches where dibbly dobblers can look unplayable, more rain interruptions than hot meals, gale force winds disturbing bowlers’ run-ups and grounds that don’t have any practice nets, because they are primarily rugby stadiums, are just some of the conditions to which this young Indian camp must quickly adjust.

After losing the two Twenty20 games in close matches at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch and the Westpac Stadium in Wellington (both Super 14 rugby grounds), India came back with a good win in the first ODI at Napier. In a rain interrupted 38-over match, the tourists posted a substantial 373/4 after Virender Sehwag got the Indians off to a flyer with 77 runs off 56 balls. M.S. Dhoni captained the ship with 84 not out off 80 balls and Suresh Rana finished off the innings with a bang as he sought and found the short square boundary several times as he clobbered 66 runs from 39

The home side just never got gong in the chase and when the rain came down after 20.5 overs in the second innings, five balls after the 20 overs required to find a winner via the Duckworth Lewis method, New Zealand were in all kinds of trouble at 111/4. When play resumed, the Back Caps needed 105 runs off 7.1 overs (a mammoth 14.62 runs per over). It was never going to happen once Martin Guptill was out to Harbhajan Singh for 64 runs off 70 balls. Harbhajan added two more quick wickets and the hosts finished on 162/2, some 53 runs behind the revised DL par of 215 runs.

World cricket is in a very healthy position when there are four close contests between the ICC’s top eight ranked sides simultaneously. India in New Zealand promises to be very exciting and the drama of the recent Antigua and Wanderers Test matches have provided such good advertisements for the longer version of the game. After 14 months in the wilderness it was wonderful to see Pakistan finally play in a Test match in which their new captain, Younis Khan, made a fine triple hundred.

But today will not be remembered for any positives. Instead it will mark one of the saddest days in cricketing history. It was a day when the best game in the world was stolen from a public by audacious terrorists who attempted to murder another nation’s cricketers. Five Pakistani policemen were killed and at least five members of the touring Sri Lankan team and management have been seriously injured.

The cricket world must unite to help Sri Lanka come through such a violent attack on its team and country and it also must offer empathy to Pakistan cricket, which will not be staging any international cricket at home for a very long time.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in March 2009, during India’s tour of New Zealand.

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