Thursday, January 21, 2021

NZC: The Selection Jigsaw

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The BLACKCAPS have 37 days of international cricket against four opponents coming up this summer.

They will face distinctly different challenges over the course of playing the West Indies, Pakistan, Australia and Bangladesh.

In total, there are four Tests – two each against the West Indies and Pakistan – 14 T20 internationals spread over the four visiting teams, and three ODIs against Bangladesh.

Now add in a blend of tour matches against New Zealand A and New Zealand XI – offering the selectors a chance to look at players whom they feel may be closing in on national selection, at a level above purely domestic competition.

It’s clear the national selectors face a raft of decisions.

How do they go about their role and produce united teams to play entertaining, winning cricket over a variety of forms?

It’s not as simple as merely making decisions solely on runs scored or wickets taken, otherwise any fan could wear a selection hat.

The selectors work off a Selection Process Document, which contains the guiding principles and philosophies of how they pick the BLACKCAPS, and New Zealand A or Selection teams.

‘’We are charged with selecting our best team at all times for Test cricket,’’ former international Gavin Larsen, one of the two official selectors, said.

‘’In terms of white ball cricket, we have some more flexibility. While we approach every match and series with a view to winning, we also have the ability to test our game plan and have a look at certain players in certain roles.

“It’s not solely just picking the best players on paper – they need to be able to play with each other and together as a team.”

On occasion this season, the selectors will be choosing more than one team for different opponents at the same time, made necessary by the tightness of overlapping schedules.

On December 13, the BLACKCAPS will be into the third day of the second Test against West Indies in Wellington, while New Zealand A will be up against Pakistan A in Queenstown, the New Zealand XI will be playing West Indies A in Nelson, and all six Major

Associations will also be in action in round five of the Ford Trophy.

That’s over 100 New Zealand male players in action in professional cricket in one day – to put it into context there’s only 116 contracted male players in the country.

In a year, there will be a ICC T20 World Cup in India and 12 months later there is due to be another, in Australia.

‘’Very different conditions, but we started about a year ago to work out how to shape our squad, then looked at what opportunities there were to look at players in particular roles we feel can contribute towards the BLACKCAPS.’’

Larsen’s fellow official selector is Gary Stead – who, as BLACKCAPS head coach has absolute power of veto and the final say on any combination picked.

The captain has a say on squad selection through communication with the coach. Once the squad is selected the captain and coach work on the playing XI together.

In addition, experienced coach and selector Bob Carter sits at the selection table, without a formal vote, to provide input, but also to challenge the thinking and judgments of Stead and Larsen.

On top of that, they have regular meetings, Zoom or in person, with the six Major Association coaches – Glenn Pocknall (Wellington), Heinrich Malan (Auckland), Rob Walter (Otago), Peter Fulton (Canterbury), Graeme Aldridge (Northern Districts) and Aldin Smith (Central Districts).

They provide input not only on their own players but also opponents from recent Plunket Shield matches.

Now add in former Test off-spinner Paul Wiseman, who is a formal part of the panel which picks NZ A or Selection sides for tour matches and oversees the NZC domestic scouting programme, and BLACKCAPS bowling coach Shane Jurgensen, and there’s no shortage of available input.

‘’You can’t solicit too much information from people you respect,’’ Larsen said.

Larsen dismisses the notion that the major association coaches will be tempted to spruik the claims of their own players for national selection.

‘’It’s about honesty. We can watch highlights using streaming or video technology and so coaches know they can’t sugar coat views.

‘’We feel there’s honesty and transparency around these discussions, which I find healthy.’’

Robust conversations on the merits of player A vs player B are encouraged. So how much does the old idea of a hunch or gut feeling about a players’ prospects come into the conversation?

‘’Statistics are your foundation. Selection should be driven off the back of that. But there are different factors, and an intuitive side of selection,’’ Larsen said.

‘’And there are variables, such as who we’re playing, and where, and players’ roles within teams. A player may have been presenting good numbers, but not in the role we see for him. The gap we have to fill could be different.’’

Issues include what specific challenges opponents will bring. Are they strong in left-handed batsmen and how might that affect the balance of the bowling attack? And do you want to pick an off-spinner purely for that reason?

Or does the opposition attack revolve around spin, in which case the question might be who is the best-equipped batsmen for that challenge.

Then there’s issues such as how to weigh the merits of a gritty, resourceful 40 in difficult conditions against a century in relatively comfortable batting circumstances.

‘’There is subjectivity in selection. My feelings about a player and his form at the time may differ from Gary or Bob, or the fans.’’

Some players can be a slow burn; others such as Colin de Grandhomme and Kyle Jamieson, can only be accused of having made everything of their selections.

Then there are choices which don’t work out. But selectors want to give those players every chance to support their judgement. Hasty decisions are not favoured, as they may have been a generation or two ago.

“Players need to play for the team and not just their own stats,” said Larsen.

“Selection plays a big role in promoting this. Cricket is a game when you fail a lot and sometimes have to sacrifice yourself for the good of the team in certain situations.

“As selectors we need to factor all of this in and continue to encourage the right behaviours from our players to help our teams win.

“The current players need to feel backed and not like they’re continually playing for their own spot – it’s got to be about the team. That’s why we try and stare clear of knee-jerk decisions.”

Finally, the critics. Larsen loves the passion and emotion of New Zealand cricket fans. He admits selectors need a thick skin because there will always be feedback that does not align with their thinking.

‘’But if you hung on to every word and took it as criticism you’d never sleep at night. You learn very quickly we love our cricket in New Zealand.

‘’People have opinions and I’d like to think even if they’re disagreeing with our decisions and putting their own opinions our here, at the end of the day they’d respect we have been through a logical, rational process.’’

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