Monday, January 3, 2011

A Good, Ordinary Cricketer

by Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts.

Being a Melbourne resident, my football code of choice is Australian rules. I am unsure of its original source, but in commentary on football a phrase used sometimes is to refer to a player as a “Good, Ordinary, Footballer”. While the phrase doesn't leap out at the reader as being esteeming, it probably would mean more to most players than being called a champion. Inherent in the phrase is an understanding that while you may not be overendowed with natural talent, your attitude towards the talent that you do possess is exemplary. Without a doubt your focus always is the betterment of your team. To use the phrase in cricketing context, Daniel Vettori is a “Good, Ordinary, Cricketer”.

The irony is that to think such a player would be interested in personal plaudits such as an article dedicated to them personally rather than their team is counter-intuitive in the least. But Vettori is a, if not 'the', stand-out of New Zealand cricket in the past 10 years, even if he probably wouldn't personally recognise it.

Vettori has carried with him the curiosity of the cricketing world throughout his career. Initially his selection as an 18 year old made him the youngest ever New Zealand test cricketer. Add to this his curly blonde hair and bank clerk spectacles that potentially were not the expected look of a lionhearted competitor. Looks are very often deceiving.

Cricket is a game where players are almost always measured on statistics, and it lends itself exceedingly well to such analysis. But to look at Vettori's statistics sells short his career and what it has achieved and stood for. That being said, Vettori's record is not by any means weak. He has taken 339 wickets in 103 matches at 33, nothing spectacular but certainly not to be ignored.

His batting probably deserves the greater respect. Having begun his test career as a number 11, he has since batted in every position from number 3 down, with 5 centuries and 22 half centuries. Most of his time and his greatest success has been in the lower-middle order. Added to this that for a period of time in the limited overs format he was used as an opener with less success, but indicates the versatility that he brought to the New Zealand cricket team.

Prior to being installed as captain in 2007, Vettori shared the weight of New Zealand cricket on his shoulders with former captain Stephen Fleming, himself also a cricketer of similar ilk. Since 2007 the weight of New Zealand cricket has consistently been carried by Vettori alone. Despite the only spasmodic success of the New Zealand team over the past decade, there have been talented cricketers that have played in the period. However, the vast majority have either elected to neglect the opportunity to represent New Zealand in favour of larger remuneration offshore or have been unwilling to dedicate themselves to the task of international cricket.

It is within this consistently inconsistent state of New Zealand cricket that Vettori has plied his trade as not just a cricketer but in recent years as the captain. At the mercy often of his own team Vettori has continued to lead, attacking the opposition with tactics, and meanwhile not allowed his own performance to decline. Often, however, character is defined by those decisions and actions that do not go to plan and indeed those ones that go awry.

After having defeated England in a one day international early on in Vettori's captaincy tenure, he refused to shake the hands of his opponents. This was in protest against an unsporting decision during play by the English. As a true mark of character, in realising the inappropriate nature of refusal, Vettori was swift in making an apology to his opponents and accepting that he had behaved inappropriately. There were no stage-managed and scripted apologies or deference to social media streams; this apology was of genuine remorse and the evidence of a leader dissatisfied with his own behaviour.

The England captain that day, Paul Collingwood, himself is also a cricketer who is cut from a similar mould to Vettori. He too was direct in his apology for his own behaviour at the conclusion of that spiteful match. Added to Collingwood I can identify two further “Good, Ordinary, Cricketers” of recent history, although there are more, usually going unnoticed. Chaminda Vaas was a solid bowler who held up the other end of Sri Lankan cricket while Muttiah Muralithuran worked his magic, and who went about his job quietly while his captain Arjuna Ranatunga made noise. Shane Watson entered the international cricket scene as the next great all-rounder, but upon his reinvention as an opener his batting and his bowling bears the traits of a cricketer with attention to detail and a willingness to put in his best efforts for the team.

Vettori will most probably end his career as the most capped New Zealand test cricketer and potentially will overtake Sir Richard Hadlee as New Zealand's greatest test wicket taker. But Vettori has given so much more to New Zealand cricket than just his performances. Over his career he has potentially been the only force standing against New Zealand cricket sliding into the uncompetitive abyss. In my opinion, what Vettori has given to New Zealand cricket in leadership and dedication far outstrips any player in Australian cricket since Allan Border – and Vettori probably equals him. Despite clearly a lack of success for New Zealand cricket, I still believe players like Vettori are what great sporting teams are built around.

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