April 16, 2013

Return of the prodigal

Luke Ronchi is a fine attacking batsman and possibly the best wicketkeeper in New Zealand at the moment. He deserves to be in the national side

Ronchi: batting wrath and keeping smarts © AFP

Though Ronchi was born in New Zealand there is no question to where his loyalties lie. The full-time professional cricketer is adamant that his only intention is to play for Australia, "definitely not" New Zealand. - ESPNcricinfo 2002

Back in March last year, I walked 200 metres around the corner to Karori Park, a busy little sports ground in the western highveldt of Wellington making its debut as a first-class venue. Grant Elliott's Wellington team was taking on Jamie How's Central Districts XI in a four-day Plunket Shield match.

Karori Park's christening came as the city's cricketing jewel, the Basin Reserve (this week named one of the world's greatest roundabouts by the UK's Roundabout Appreciation Society), was being monstered for new drainage at the time.

As well as how the deck played, the most interesting aspect of the game was the appearance of Dannevirke-born, former Strayan wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi. He strode in at seven, just before tea, joining the captain, who was unbeaten on 70-odd.

After scones and some Earl Grey in the pavilion, Ronchi (11 not out) re-emerged in a punishing mood and subjected the young CD attack to a belligerent batting masterclass, playing a series of cover drives, topspin lobs, and beautifully timed back-foot pull shots to score 100 in the session, eventually stumped for 111 from 91 balls (13 fours, four sixes). With that his peculiar Italian name was locked into my cricketing frontal lobe.

I've kept an eye on Ronchi over the past year - I saw him plunder dual tons at Karori Park just before Christmas. His timing was again immaculate, and the targets for his dangerous double of 113 and 108 were much more experienced this time around: Tim Southee, Brent Arnel and Graeme Aldridge.

Ronchi's batting is often mentioned in the same breath as "rocketed", "blasted", "slammed", "clouted", "blitzed", "blistering", "bullying", "aggressive" and "destructive". But in addition to the batting wrath he deals out, he also remains a very good gloveman, some say the best in the country these days. Importantly, he's not a work in progress - he's a keeper first and a batsman second, not the other way around.

Ronchi's path to the wicketkeeper role for New Zealand is clearing with his selection in the one-day squad, ahead of the incumbent, BJ Watling, and alongside skipper Brendon McCullum. The opportunity came as Watling had a trio of failures against England in the recent ODI series (10 runs in three innings, facing just 39 balls across the series).

Not that Ronchi's elevation and chance to be the first Australasian international cricketer came off the back of compelling domestic 50-over stats - he scored 129 runs at 25.80 to land 46th in the batting averages.

He does have a track record with some meat on it, though, and a triple-digit strike rate in his pocket courtesy of the Aussie part of his CV. His "been there, done that" list includes clubbing 67 from 24 balls in a 101-run opening partnership with Ryan Campbell (he of suicidal ramp shot fame) in Australia's first-ever domestic T20 match, back in January 2005 at the WACA, mowing a 51-ball first-class century for WA against Queensland in 2007, hammering his way to a domestic one-day ton in a record 56 balls, and thumping a 22-ball fifty for Australia at the St Kitts postage stamp in 2008. Hot tip: if you're considering going to observe, wear a helmet if you're anywhere near deep square leg, as most match reports include a nod to his vicious pull shot.

Ronchi is shaping as a genuine Test keeper contender too. I'd love to see him get a chance, with Watling still in the XI as a batsman. This summer Ronchi's form was compelling, with 807 domestic first-class runs at an average of 62.07, complemented by a quartet of centuries. He leapfrogged Kruger van Wyk (not a difficult task in reality) in the pecking order, and if he was a self-absorbed character he'd count himself unlucky having Tom Latham ahead of him in the Test squad to play at Lord's and Leeds.

But patiently waiting his turn is something Roncs is accustomed to. He arrived on the Western Australian scene as his idol Adam Gilchrist was cranking up to legend status, then had to hang about for the highly regarded keeper-batsman Campbell to retire.

Whatever you think of the 22 pages of ICC eligibility rules, international cricket is a better place when the best players are involved. Luke Ronchi deserves to be there.

I for one would walk a lot further than 200 metres to watch this former paperboy play.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. He tweets here

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  • jared on April 17, 2013, 5:21 GMT

    Yep he's a good cricketer but McCullum is the best gloveman in the country and should stay the keeper in the short forms. Watling is doing a great job as the test keeper so no room for him there either. I'd pick him if he was a young man but isn't he older than McCullum? Thats not smart picking a guy older than the incumbent, thats probably why they picked Latham, to make sure our future keeping stocks are up to scratch when McCullum eventually retires, by then though Seifert would probably overtaken the lot anyway (crystal balling). The only way he should make the team is as a batsman and prove his worth with consistant scores, we have enough flakey batsman who hit a long ball though, sadly Ronchi fits that mould too so not too sure where he fits.

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