PLAYERS suspended for drug use, a trouncing on the field, wholesale sacking of officials, the captain walking off in a huff and threatening to 'defect' to South Africa-few celebrations can have been as traumatic as those for New Zealand cricket's 100th birthday this year. It was abash in all the wrong ways. And the only surefire way to get rid of that nasty hangover was to chop off the head.
That is precisely the kind of radical therapy that has preceded New Zealand's short tour of India. The Kiwis are putting their money on changes at the top-both at the playing and administrative level--to propel a standing leap out of the No Fly Zone they've been stuck in. Results may take a backseat to the rebuilding effort in the three Tests and six one-dayers. The idea is to get a chance to mark the turn of the century by shedding the no-hopers tag. Call it Operation Refurbish Image.
The first target had to be skipper Ken Rutherford after his dismal record of 11 defeats in 18 Tests. The surprise packet comes in the appointment of Lee Germon as his replacement: the 26-year-old Canterbury captain has yet to make his Test debut. Shades of Tony Lewis and the 1972-73 touring MCC team.
"Germon is a natural leader," affirms Nick Bridge, the New Zealand High Commissioner in New Delhi and an authority on the game in his country. Germon's counterparts in the new trinity have no lack of credentials. "Manager Gren Alaba-ster, besides being a former Test player, is also a headmaster and New Zealand cricket lovers expect him to do a solid job. Coach Glenn Turner is, of course, widely respected. It is their leadership which will be so vital in the rebuilding process."
The tourists' bowling attack will be spearheaded by Danny Morrison. Now out of the shadows of the great Sir Richard Hadlee, he will demand a toss-up for the best fast bowler's slot on either side with Javagal Srinath and Manoj Prabhakar. As for batting, the onus is mostly on Martin Crowe. If he never quite fulfilled Greg Chappell's prophesy of becoming the batsman of the '80s, the reason may have been as much in his mind as his body, which has threatened to give way several times over the past five years. Still, Crowe can be one of the game's most aesthetic sights. "His very presence should make a difference," feels former Indian Test cricketer Abbas Ali Baig. "He is undoubtedly one of the top five batsmen in the world." Crowe has recently written his autobiography (Out On a Limb). "A cathartic experience," feels Bridge. "It has given him an opportunity to unload the baggage of his past and exorcise his personal demons." Backing Crowe will be Mark Greatbatch, now fighting his way out of a post-'92 World Cup trough.
Indeed, the World Cup looms large over the series. The visitors need to rummage through the debris and pad up afresh. As for India, with an outstanding record in India over the last three years, skipper Mohammed Azharuddin must be looking forward to another meal delivered at home. The, trio of Anil Kumble, Srinath and Prabhakar have whetted their appetite with top-drawer performances on the English county circuit while Ajay Jadeja and Vinod Kambli haven't sulked on the India 'A' tour of Kenya.
While not ruling out another 'brownwash', Baig warns against complacency: The Kiwis are not a particularly strong side, and we shouldn't get carried away with the result. They may not be ideal World Cup preparation but the series will at least give our players the chance to get fit."
The late drop-out of the injured Dipak Patel is yet another blow to the tourists. However Bridge feels it may be to the Kiwis' advantage that they start as distinct underdogs: "The team is largely untried and have everything to play for. They could still spring a surprise or two. "Besides, Christopher Doing is all set to take over as CEO of New Zealand cricket. An accomplished opera singer and organiser of art festivals, he was wooed to takeover the top post. The team could perhaps take their cue from the choice. After all, a cricket series, lust like the opera, is not really over till the fat lady sings.