It was never going to be easy succeeding Stephen Fleming, New Zealand’s longest serving captain and one of the most cerebral skippers in the game. And one could not but agree with Wisden’s view that Daniel Vettori accepted one of the more poisoned chalices on offer - the captaincy of an apparently declining New Zealand side.
Indeed it was just his bad luck that he took over the captaincy just as the Kiwis were going into decline with retirements and defections to the rebel ICL taking a toll. But Vettori is nothing, if not a fighter and over the last couple of years he has cajoled and inspired his team members to play above their potential. The place in the final of the recently concluded Champions Trophy was a fitting tribute to his leadership qualities. He proved that a team without big names can still deliver while playing as a fighting unit. His hand was clearly seen in their resolve for in the first place New Zealand were not fancied to make it to the semifinal from the tough group that included South Africa, Sri Lanka and England. Then they were beset by injury problems which saw them without several key players.
But led admirably by Vettori New Zealand not only made it to the semifinals but also topped the group and then got the better of favourites Pakistan before going down to the more fancied Aussies in the final. How much the non-availability of Vettori for this match affected their chances will continue to remain a subject for debate for he is worth his weight in gold in his triple role – doughty batsman, skilful bowler and shrewd skipper.
Indeed the adjudicators must have deliberated for long before deciding on Thilan Samaraweera for the man of the series in last month’s Test series between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. The Sri Lankan batsman emerged as the leading run-getter in the series with 347 runs from the two games with two centuries and an average of almost 87. But on figures Vettori was right up there with him. He scored 272 runs at an average of 68 with a century and a half century and also took ten wickets at a highly commendable average of 32.50. I suppose it ultimately boiled down to Samaraweera being on the winning side instead of giving the award to a player from a side that lost both the matches, however sterling the performances were.
Recent events have marked another step in the graduation of Vettori to genuine all-round status. Over the years the diligent, be-spectacled player has transformed himself into a world class cricketer. For long he was one of the most under-rated and unheralded spin bowlers in world cricket. As a batsman he belonged to the tail-ender class when he first started out as the youngest player to represent New Zealand. Now he enjoys the exalted status of being one among only eight cricketers with the admirable double of 3000 runs and 300 wickets besides being a respected skipper of the national side.
There is little doubt that Vettori is a born leader. He has slipped naturally into the hot seat and at the age of 30, with more than a dozen years of the international game behind him he has it in him to be the complete cricketer. Indeed one wonders what he will be most remembered as when he calls it a day – a high quality spin bowler who showed perseverance and variety, a genuine all rounder who rose from the ranks of tail-ender by working diligently on his batting or as one of the best captains to lead New Zealand.
Vettori is a prime example of what talent coupled with hard work can achieve. A cricketer is obviously gifted when he is thought good enough to make his Test debut at 18. But there are many examples of talented players who have fallen by the wayside because they have not applied themselves to the task before them, who have let early success go to their heads. Vettori on the other hand has always been ambitious and level-headed. He worked hard on his bowling and batting, involved himself in the more cerebral aspects of the game and became the logical successor to Fleming.
Nothing symbolizes Vettori’s diligent approach better than the manner in which he improved his batting. Starting out at No.11, he slowly worked his way up the order and, in fact, got his first Test hundred at No. 9 – one of the few to get a century in that position. The fifties were notched up at more regular intervals, there were a couple of more hundreds down the line, the average kept getting better and, ere long, Vettori had joined the list of genuine all-rounders. At Colombo last month he notched up his Test best score of 140 in a gallant, but vain, bid to avert defeat.
The greater emphasis on his batting did not mean that Vettori’s bowling would suffer. On the contrary the strike rate and average improved. After 50 Tests he had taken 150 wickets at almost 36 apiece. He took his 300th wicket in his 94th Test at an average of just over 33. One must remember that his batting kept improving during the latter half of his career and so the bowling figures are quite commendable. In time he was able to achieve a mastery of drift and subtle variations in flight, change of pace and length and has earned a reputation as a dangerous bowler and New Zealand’s No. 1 spin bowler of all time.
For all the improvement in his bowling by way, of variety accuracy has always been Vettori’s forte and this has stood him and the team in good stead in limited overs cricket. A tally of 251 wickets from 245 ODIs at an economy rate of fractionally over four underlines the steadfast quality of his bowling. Even in Twenty20 where the slam bang is more pronounced Vettori has been restrictive, being at his best against the rampaging Indians in the inaugural World Cup in South Africa in 2007, when he finished with the amazing figures of four for 20 from his four overs, while leading his team to a ten-run victory over the ultimate champions.
In Tests, Vettori has 18 five-wicket hauls and three ten-wicket hauls – not bad for a bowler who had a rather slow start. The tougher the opposition, the better he gets and, in fact, his maiden ten-wicket bag was against Australia at Eden Park in 2000 when he finished with his best Test figures of 12 for 149. Against weak opposition, he can be quite devastating as he showed while having a ball against Bangladesh in 2004, taking 20 wickets at 11 apiece in the two-match rout.
New Zealand has never had a particularly purple patch in international cricket symbolized by their standings in the ICC rankings which has consistently placed them in the bottom half. But while their fortunes may be mixed Vettori has been one of the few constant performers and a reassuring presence.