Cricket analysts have always tried to read the lines between 'warring' players and how their relationships impact the performance of a team. Almost every Test-playing nation has had its fair share of controversies. For example, the rapport between a Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virender Sehwag has been a topic of much introspection in recent times.
The 'personality' war is not a unique phenomenon. This is more of a norm than exception. Fortunately for Team India at the Champions Trophy, it's been a very happy dressing room with Dhoni the only senior statesman in a squad with no dominant 'senior.' A Sehwag or a Gautam Gambhir is clearly not being missed as India have won every game in UK with consummate ease thus far.
New Zealand missed a great opportunity to seal a Champions Trophy semifinal berth when they lost by 10 runs against England at the Sophia Gardens on Sunday evening. Chasing 170 for a win in a rain hit 24-overs-a-side contest, the Black Caps got pretty close after Kane Williamson struck a 54-ball 67. New Zealand were ultimately left reflecting on what might have been had their top order not crashed to 62 for five in the 14th over. Â
Big games need big players to fire. On Sunday, New Zealand depended on a Brendon McCullum or a Ross Taylor to get them out of jail. Neither took the initiative the way 22-year-old Williamson did after coming in at No. 3. Debutant Corey Anderson scored a gutsy 24-ball 30, but Williamson's exit in the 22nd over after a controversial Stuart Broad no-ball, shut the door on the Kiwis.
"It's just a shame that a couple of us lost our wickets at key times or couldn't clear the rope at key times and put us on the back seat again. And that was sort of reflected throughout our innings a little bit where we gained momentum and lost it at key times," said Williamson in a post-match chat sitting beside his skipper.
Williamson's words were certainly not music to McCullum's ears. The inability of the senior players to put their hands up and get counted on big occasions raises questions on commitment and team morale. Unlike the Aussies (read David Warner), the Kiwis have had no issues with team conduct in the UK. But their batting discipline has raised serious doubts after Sunday.
Taylor and McCullum were reportedly not in the best of terms after the former was removed as Kiwi skipper in the shorter formats of the game in December 2012. Taylor was asked to keep the Test captaincy, but registered his protest by taking a break from cricket.
Taylor skipped New Zealand's tour of South Africa December-end. The announcement ended days of speculation about Taylor's future. The Kiwi media indicated a split between head coach Mike Hesson and the batsman.
New Zealand Cricket boss David White said Hesson had recommended Taylor step down from the captaincy of the shorter formats as part of a review following the team's tour of Sri Lanka, where they drew the Test series 1-1.
"We regret that Ross Taylor has declined the opportunity, therefore McCullum has been appointed as Black Caps captain for all three forms of the game," White had said.
The New Zealand cricket management was clearly unhappy with Taylor's decision to skip the tour of South Africa. "It's not ideal and we would be a stronger team with Ross Taylor in it," White had said. Without an injured former skipper Daniel Vettori, the results were disastrous. New Zealand suffered heavy innings defeats in both Test matches against the Proteas. McCullum was a failure with just one fifty in four innings as an opener.
Taylor replaced Vettori as captain in June 2011. Although the talented batsman guided the Black Caps to a Test win in Australia, he was under pressure in 2012. New Zealand slumped to Test series defeats at home to South Africa and then away to West Indies and India.
Taylor's record in the shorter formats was also under the scanner after New Zealand crashed out of the World Twenty20 tournament in Sri Lanka at the Super Eights stage and lost 10 of their 14 completed one-day internationals in 2012. McCullum was the automatic choice to replace Taylor. In September 2012, McCullum slammed the highest score in Twenty20 international history as New Zealand beat Bangladesh by 59 runs at the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in Pallekele. McCullum hit seven sixes and 11 fours in his 58-ball 123, beating the record of 117 previously jointly held by Richard Levi and Chris Gayle.
In February this year, former great and probably New Zealand's greatest cricketer Richard Hadlee had envisaged a Kevin Pietersen-type (KP was at odds with former England skipper Andrew Strauss) crisis.
Hadlee was concerned that the controversial decision to replace Taylor as captain with McCullum will lead to disharmony in the dressing room. "It is going to be an uneasy time when he comes back into the dressing room," said Hadlee.
Since it was Hesson who decided that Taylor had to go as captain, Hadlee said the dressing room would never be a friendly place. "It shows that Mike has got b**** because John Buchanan, the director of cricket, was very much a Taylor man as far as the captaincy was concerned," said Hadlee, who was chairman of selectors for eight years.
Interestingly, Taylor and McCullum have been teenage mates, playing for the New Zealand U-19s together from 2001. Although McCullum made his international debut ahead of the Samoan, their careers have been closely linked. Interestingly, Taylor captained the New Zealand national side ahead of McCullum.
McCullum refuses to talk about animosities. "Ross and I have shared some great moments on and off the field in the eight to 10 years we've been playing together," he had said, adding: "We don't have that long left in our careers now, so we'll continue to enjoy some great moments together."
When there is collective failure, it is probably easier to hide differences. In a chat with reporters on Sunday evening, McCullum said all was well in the Kiwi dressing and threw speculations of differences to the back burner.
On the contrary, McCullum defended Taylor's poor stroke against an incoming Tim Bresnan delivery that caught him LBW. A desperate Taylor, who scored 3 off 6 balls, sought to review the decision, but lost it.
"I think it's harsh to say that he (Taylor) didn't deliver on a big day. He's churned out an excellent career to date. It's not just Ross, there are many big players on our team who missed out today, but that is the game we play. You can't get runs every time as well," McCullum said.
McCullum's best score in the last six ODIs in UK has been an unbeaten 40 versus England at Southampton. He has had scores of 18, 0 and 8 in the Champions Trophy. By contrast, Taylor has had three scores of 50-plus in his last six innings on English soil. Taylor's best has been a 71 at Nottingham against England but with scores of 0, 9* and 3, he too has failed in the Champions Trophy. So the duo are 'united' by a string of poor scores.
New Zealand complete their tour of England with a couple of T20 internationals after the Champions Trophy final in Birmingham on June 23. Both matches will be at The Oval and the 'united' force of Taylor and McCullum will surely be under the scanner.