One-sided games are just not cricket

I reckon the Black Caps are misunderstood. The record, Sunday excepted, suggests they are on a chivalrous mission to relieve the 1955 team of the ignominy of the world record low international innings — 26.

We also owe them a more general debt: by losing to Zimbabwe-level minnows, the hapless cricketers have reminded us we are a “branch office” country.

We see this most in business. This week’s example: Australia’s Lion, abetted by an indulgent Stock Exchange panel, gulps down local Montana, admirable anchor of our wine exports. The national interest worry is that Lion might bleed cash from wine to offset beer failures, particularly in China.

New Zealand’s hands-free descent into branch office status is being cited by Australian business leaders pushing for policy changes to avert an exodus of head offices from that country, according to Paul Kelly, the Australian newspaper’s authoritative international editor, last week. Though a market liberal, Mr Kelly has also urged the government to stop Shell taking control of the huge Northwest Shelf petroleum field.

Australia can at least do sport — our sports — well. We no longer have that comfort. Our rugby is now No 4. Our cricketers, by their own admissions, have absented themselves from the contest.

One-sided sport isn’t much spectator fun, especially for supporters of the side that isn’t there.

For the past year it hasn’t been much fun for supporters watching the National party — the opposition that wasn’t there.

That is not entirely fair. A government in its first year hogs attention, even when getting things wrong. But National did squander ammunition: attacks foundered for lack of follow-up or because they were in fact defences of the 1990s, marooned by a policy shift.

Now back to the cricket analogy. New Zealand scored its first test win only a year after its record low. National won in 1960 and 1975 after only one term out of office. The two-term 1984-90 sidelining can be rationalised by special factors.

So, history says too seductively, National can hope to win in 2002.

Well, it has started 2001 sensibly: the front bench intelligently reshaped by Jenny Shipley, the deputy leadership refreshed and unity pledged; policy debate opened up; even a pact of sorts with ACT, recognising the logic of MMP.

So opposition attacks might score better this year. Certainly, attack is history-seduced Mrs Shipley’s impatient priority. At her reshuffle press conference she scarcely mentioned policy redevelopment, except for Roger Sowry in health. The whole reshuffle was built around six attack targets.

Which Mrs Shipley infelicitously demonstrated with a Malaprop-riate assault on the English language. Her aim, she told the press conference, was to “ignite a new confidence in the community”. (What? Reduce confidence to ashes?) National MPs were “peers as equal”. (Where, British Peers excepted, are peers not equal?). Gerry Brownlee, promoted to front Labour’s hard man, Trevor Mallard, in education, had a “magnificently bombastic style” — which the dictionary calls “empty rhetoric”.

And — reminiscent of her coming-in-through-bedroom-windows gaffe about Pacific islanders last year — Mrs Shipley alleged that “Maori are breaking into the universities in huge numbers”.

Mrs Shipley will herself lead the “attack” on Maori issues. This risks isolating National from Maori. Back to cricket: the game might lift if Maori and Pacific islanders, indispensable in rugby, netball and softball, joined up. If the right is to assemble durable majorities, National needs to make good in some form its lack of Maori voting support.

Bill English thinks so. This focus on long-term strategy is one of several disjunctions between him and his shorter-focused leader.

Mr English was a critic of Mrs Shipley’s centralised approach as his predecessor as Minister of Health. She as Prime Minister glamourised economic deregulation; he is intuitively of the centre. He was one of very few who refused to the end to sign up to her coup against Jim Bolger. He has a first-class degree in English.

Is this healthy, cross-fertilising complementarity, as National portrays it, or disabling difference (as when Helen Clark was deputy to Mike Moore)? This year will tell.