IN FOCUS – Black Caps on the way up

  The New Zealand Test team is in an unfamiliar situation at the moment. They have climbed to the sixth position in the ICC Test rankings and the squad is having a settled look after a long time. Their 186-run win in the first Test against the West Indies at Kingston is solid proof of their rise as a strong unit.

  However, eighteen months ago, things were not looking as bright. There was discord in the team and the then captain Ross Taylor actually opted out of the squad touring South Africa in early 2013 citing differences with the management. New Zealand hit their lowest ebb of recent times during that tour when they collapsed to 45 all out at Cape Town. Things could only get better after this debacle, and thankfully they have. A drawn series at home against England was the first indication of a resurgence under new captain Brendon McCullum.

  Even before 2013, there were sparks of promise. Just before the Taylor controversy broke out in late 2012, the Black Caps scored a rare overseas win against Sri Lanka at Colombo – which helped them level the series – to break a run of seven successive defeats on the road. Taylor himself starred in that victory with a splendid hundred, not to mention the major role played by the fast-bowling pair of Tim Southee and Trent Boult. Probably, this win was the catalyst of the strong performances that have been dished out over the past few months. After a memorable 2013-14 summer in which they went undefeated in five Tests, New Zealand have now set their sights on overseas successes.

znewzea12062014     The Black Caps celebrate after convincingly defeating the West Indies at Kingston by 186 runs – another indication of their rising all-round ability (source – khaleejtimes.com)

  The best example of the team’s newly-found resolve was the stunning fightback by McCullum and the gutsy Bradley-John Watling – currently one of the finest wicketkeeper-batsmen in the world – in the second Test against India at Wellington in February. The two put on a world-record 352 for the sixth wicket to rescue the side from dire straits and seal a memorable draw and as a result, a series win. McCullum of course scored an epic 302, one of the greatest knocks of modern times. Another big factor in the team’s success has been the rise of Kane Williamson as a highly dependable No.3 batsman. He is the best player of spin in the batting line-up and complements the aggressive Taylor and McCullum very well in the middle order.

  Williamson is tailor-made for Test cricket. Indeed, when asked if Twenty20 is his favourite format of the game, he replied ‘It is in my top three’. At Kingston, he was the one who laid the platform for victory. Here is a batsman who values his wicket and certainly he will go on to become one of the best that New Zealand have produced. Besides Williamson, the younger batsmen that have come into the team have adapted well. Hamish Rutherford may have struggled since his debut century against England, but his fellow opener Tom Latham looks the real deal. All-rounder James Neesham is a highly valuable find, and he already has two centuries in his first two Tests batting at no.6, providing the team with great depth. The fact that he has managed to keep out an impact player like Corey Anderson as the first-choice all-rounder underlines the healthy competition for places.

  To win Test matches you need to take twenty wickets, and in Southee and Boult, New Zealand possess a highly potent pair of fast bowlers. These two have literally justified the cliche ‘fast bowlers hunt in pairs’ – recent history shows that each of them has been much more incisive when the other is sharing new-ball duties. Southee has risen to become a bowler for all conditions – his excellent bowling at Kingston is testimony to the fact – while Boult is equally effective, as the West Indies found out during their tour to New Zealand. Add to that the workhorse Neil Wagner and you get a pace trio which can rattle the best on any given day. And we have not even mentioned Doug Bracewell, who would have been the team if not for his off-field shenanigans.    zz5202120b-5865-4ade-969b-1b3a39d36badHiRes      New Zealand have been blessed with a quality new-ball pair for all conditions in Tim Southee (R) and Trent Boult (source – hindustantimes.com)

    Of late, the spin department had been an area of concern for New Zealand, with the perennial injury to long-time first-choice spinner Daniel Vettori and the premature retirement of Jeetan Patel. However, there was reason to be optimistic while watching the Kingston Test. Off-spinner Mark Craig, with a passable first-class record, spun himself into the limelight with a match-haul of 8/188 – the best ever by a Kiwi on debut. While it is too early to say whether he can sustain his performance against tougher opponents, the spirit is unmistakable – he is reminiscent of the equally-spunky Nathan Lyon, his off-spin counterpart from across the Tasman Sea. Then there is the raw talent of leg-spinner Ish Sodhi, who is yet to make a mark on the international circuit.

  The only weak point in the eleven that won at Kingston was the continued failure of opener Peter Fulton, who was understandably dropped for the ongoing second Test. Fulton has had his time in the sun – the twin centuries against England at Eden Park last year being the glory moment. Recent events have shown that Latham could be the first-choice opener, which leaves some serious competition for the second spot – Rutherford, Martin Guptill and Jesse Ryder. Both Guptill and Ryder are part of the ODI set-up, and while Guptill was dropped from the Test team after a string of low scores, Ryder, I believe, would have walked into the Test eleven if not for his frustrating tendency to defy the rule-book. While his batting ability is well-known, he also recently scalped ten wickets in a county game for Essex.

  This is an exciting time for the Black Caps’ Test team. They are a win away from recording only their second series triumph in the Caribbean. Their biggest Test awaits them later in the year – facing Pakistan in a three-Test series in the UAE. Then top-ranked teams like England and South Africa have found out that beating Pakistan in their ‘home’ can be arduous task. While England were destroyed in 2011-12, South Africa at least managed a draw in 2013-14. If New Zealand even manage to draw that series, it will be a great achievement. And they do have the resources to make it happen. As far as the the 2015 world Cup is concerned, they could well start the tournament as one of the favourites and not just because they are co-hosts.

  Many New Zealand sides of the past have been known for their tenacity, diligence  and refusal to go down without a fight, be it in Tests against stronger opponents or in the World Cup. The current team is capable of all that and much more.

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