New Zealand in England 2013 May 15, 2013

It takes two to tango

Near-strangers six months ago, Hamish Rutherford and Peter Fulton have a big role to play in driving New Zealand in England

The contrast is obvious. Peter Fulton, 34, who stands at 1.98 metres, is bald and broad-shouldered, like a bouncer. Hamish Rutherford is nearly a foot shorter, sports a stylish crop of hair, and is every bit the youthful 24-year-old. Fulton loves baseball, a game Rutherford does not - and would not like to - understand. Fulton is quiet both in person and with a bat in hand. Rutherford is direct on both fronts.

Yet, when brought together at the top of the order, during New Zealand's home series against England earlier this year, the two batsmen - who had done little more than exchange casual greetings during domestic matches over the years - combined more effectively than expected.

Rutherford's memorable century on debut in Dunedin, his home ground, set the tone. His 171, the seventh-highest by a Test debutant, was the second-best start by a New Zealander after Mathew Sinclair's 214 against West Indies in 1999.

Fulton, who was recalled after a four-year hiatus, made news of his own when he struck two gritty centuries in the final Test in Auckland, becoming only the fourth New Zealander with twin hundreds in the same match. Unlike in his first stint of ten Tests, when he played mainly as a middle-order batsman who occasionally stepped in as an opener, Fulton was asked to fill in for the injured Martin Guptill at the top of the order. And he didn't disappoint.

Near-strangers before this year, the pair ended the series as important cogs in New Zealand's wheel. Both started the series with a similar goal - of cementing their place in the team - and that helped them egg each other on and remain competitive. "I suppose we were running on adrenalin, both of us, with him making a comeback and me starting," said Rutherford, sitting in the team hotel in Derbyshire.

When Rutherford scored his century on debut, few were happier for him than his senior opening partner. "I was delighted for him to come in and score that century," Fulton said. "When I look back at my career, if I had had the same start, things might have been different. I am sure he will have some ups and downs but to get that hundred is like getting the monkey off his back straightaway. It will make a massive difference to his career because he is always going to have that belief that he has done it right from the outset."

One of the unique aspects of their relationship is the ten-year age difference, uncommon among successful opening pairs across history.

"I guess I have grown up around older people," Rutherford said. "And while you are playing cricket you are generally among older players. So age is irrelevant once you leave school. You just mingle with whoever." He added that he did not know if Fulton was the oldest player he has played with.

Fulton saw his younger partner was "laidback" about everything both on and off the field, and that helped him relax too. "Test cricket is pretty stressful at times," he said. "I am reasonably nervous to begin with. [So] it is nice to bat with someone who doesn't get too carried away or get caught up emotionally."

Fulton was a makeshift opener during his first ten Tests, when he had Hamish Marshall and Michael Papps for partners. A long-term combination helps each batsman understand the little things about his partner, he said, which come of use in match situations.

"We probably are different personalities in terms of the way we bat," Fulton said. "Hamish [Rutherford] is pretty aggressive and plays a lot of shots, hits the ball in different areas and puts the bowlers off their line and length. I like to occupy the crease and wear the bowlers down. After seeing him get that hundred it motivated me a little bit more. In that third Test it made me bat that much more stronger."

Rutherford too has fed off Fulton. "He's been there, done that. So that took a little bit of pressure off me, having no experience in international cricket. Because opening the batting is a daunting task. Bowling attacks like England are very good and they come quite hard. So if you can stay calm, have a joke now and then, it comes handy during the hard times."

Although his Test recall did not come as a surprise, Fulton admitted he was beginning to wonder if he was going to miss the bus. "I was getting to a stage when you are bit older and you might not get another chance."

Five years ago, he was consumed by the fear of failure. He walked out to bat thinking he would be dropped if he didn't score. He has approached his second stint with more freedom. "I am looking at what I can achieve if I do well rather than worrying about what'll happen if things go wrong," he said.

Fulton said he has more clarity now, especially since his marriage. "It does help if you have stability off the field. Then hopefully that can mean you don't have too many ups and downs on the cricket field. The last 18 months, things have gone really well cricket-wise."

The results speak for themselves: he finished the home series against England at the top of the run charts. "Self-belief is the difference between a good player and great Test player - the self-belief that no matter what the situation of the game, no matter what you are feeling at the crease, you know you can score the runs," said Fulton, whose role model is Steve Waugh. "He did not always look the most attractive, but he found a way to score runs. He was pretty hard-nosed, had great concentration, and never gave his wicket away."

Rutherford, on the other hand, who often uses the word "fun" in conversation, looks up to Matthew Hayden, who he calls an ideal opener. "He could not only dominate the bowlers but could also see through the tough periods," he said. "My game plan is, see the ball and play as best as I can. The traditional openers like to leave the ball outside off stump a lot. I like to play those balls. That is my strength."

Rutherford's debut century was followed by relatively meagre returns: the next four innings brought 75 runs, including a duck in the second dig in Auckland. He isn't perturbed, though. Having weathered the first hour of the Auckland Test, the pair, he said, was moving in the right direction. His England tour began on a positive note: a week after our meeting he reeled off 126 against England Lions in Leicester.

Fulton and Rutherford are aware they face competition in the form of Martin Guptill, an injury to whom brought them together in the first place. Guptill, who has since regained fitness, might fancy his chances in the swinging conditions in England, but he'll need to wait: the New Zealand coach Mike Hesson revealed plans to give Fulton and Rutherford a long rope.

The looming threat of Guptill, Fulton said, is a positive. "It is a good sign for our team that we have the depth. Everyone would like to know that their place is secure in the team for a long time, but sometimes it is a good thing and sometimes it can create complacency."

Rutherford agreed. "We have to do our job as openers: to bat for long periods, see the shine off the new ball, which is the main thing."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo