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Max Bania: Black Caps still losing the mental battle

opinion

By Max Bania

Published: 11:46AM Monday July 30, 2012 Source: ONE Sport

  • Martin Guptill (Source: Photosport)
    Martin Guptill - Source: Photosport

One of the wonderful eccentricities of Test cricket is that a contest lasting five days can be decided in the blink of an eye.

Tides can turn on chances seized; opportunities lost. Mere moments of brilliance - or brittleness - can make the difference between historic success and crushing failure.

Too often in recent times New Zealand's cricketers have found themselves facing the latter. Competitive for long periods, mental lapses at key moments have cost them dear.

Cricket also has the cruel habit of making villains from heroes, and so it was for Martin Guptill in Antigua.

The Black Caps' best performer with the bat, it was Guptill's dismissals late on days one and four - coupled with Daniel Flynn dropping a simple chance off Chris Gayle when the Windies opener had just 36 runs on day two - that handed the initiative back to the hosts at crucial moments.

It was impossible not to feel for Guptill, having fought all day for his 97 first innings runs and then thrown his wicket and New Zealand's advantage away in an instant.

His thought process was clear - one big hit to bring up the century - but it was the product of a cluttered mind.

Anxiety about his proximity to an elusive three-figure in the shadow of stumps, a testing spell from spinner Sunil Narine and the added pressure of a nightwatchman at the other end got to Guptill.

Had he played the fatal delivery on its merits, as he had the proceeding 248 deliveries, he would have survived the day and, who knows, probably gone on to prosper the following morning.

Instead, he followed skipper Ross Taylor back to the shed, and the rest is history.

Excluding Tests against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, Guptill has now gone past fifty eight times and failed to convert even one of those scores into a century. It's a record that will earn him comparisons to a certain former New Zealand captain unless he's careful.

Not that his colleagues are any better.

The past two years have produced just nine New Zealand Test centuries; but another nine dismissals between 75 and 100.

One of those, Brendon McCullum's rash diagonal-batted swipe that sent the ball crashing back onto his stumps late on day four was as critical as Guptill's first innings demise.

Eliminating those mental microsleeps; clearing the mind of all else and focusing on nothing other than the next delivery can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Wearing the opposition bowlers down through sheer will and concentration may not be glamorous, but it's means to a far more fruitful end.

And the New Zealanders only need cast their eyes across the Atlantic to South Africa's batting epic in their first Test against England to see it can be done.

Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis faced a combined 1,128 deliveries (a whopping 187 overs) against a more testing attack than the West Indies put up, for just a single dismissal.

So immovable were they that England's bowlers were forced out of their comfort zone in search of wickets; then the runs started to flow.

Against this New Zealand line-up, bowlers can be confident of merely sticking to their gameplan safely in the knowledge that their opponents will fashion their own demise sooner or later.

It certainly didn't help that New Zealand's middle order, instead of fighting back against late setbacks on days one and four, ran for cover as well.

After such a promising start to his Test career, Dean Brownlie is on his last warning, while much more leadership is needed from Taylor and Kane Williamson.

Notwithstanding the placid Antigua wicket, the bowlers should not be above criticism either. Lessons from limited overs thrashings from Chris Gayle were not learned.

Like a circling shark, he can sense fear and vulnerability, and the feeding frenzy that follows is inevitable.

The Windies' batsmen quickly realised that what little threat Dan Vettori carried on a turning surface could be negated by sitting on him and milking the quicks.

But they will be thankful to have the workout under their belts - particularly a rusty Chris Martin - and something to built on in Kingston.

Despite what the scoreboard suggests, the tourists aren't that far away from maintaining parity with the Windies.

It's just a matter of learning not to blink at all the wrong moments.

Do you agree with Max? Can the Black Caps improve enough to get on top of the Windies in the second Test?

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