A busy time for the Black Caps
Andrew McLean looks forward, with much trepidation, to New Zealand's Test series against Australia, which starts at Christchurch on Thursday:
If there is any sort of silver lining for Sri Lanka after the terrible tsunami tragedy, it's that their cricketers will return to New Zealand in April just in time to face a home side begging for mercy after three back-to-back Tests against the unstoppable Australians.
Between March 10 and April 15, New Zealand will play five Tests on the trot now that the two-match series against Sri Lanka, originally scheduled for January, follows the Australian series. Ordinarily, a run of fixtures like that would never be agreed, but this season has been far from normal, and New Zealand Cricket has inescapable commitments to its commercial partners and the ICC Test Championship.
Nevertheless, it is inevitable the players' association will have a few words to say about player-workload. And rightly so: 25 Test-playing days out of 37 is quite simply unfair on both the players and the coach, John Bracewell, whose unenviable task of arresting NZ's slide down the Test rankings just got even tougher.
If there is a third certainty after death and taxes, Australia winning the coming series 3-0 is right up there. I've rarely struggled to be optimistic about New Zealand's chances against anyone in the past, but, having seen Test humiliations at Brisbane and Adelaide, another outrageous run of injuries, and an embarrassing effort in the five home one-dayers that have just ended ... the next month doesn't bear thinking about.
Whereas New Zealand are seemingly on their last legs, Australia could hardly be better prepared for this series, after steamrollering everyone this season. In Glenn McGrath they have cricket's most demanding pace bowler, and in Brett Lee they have the fastest. In Shane Warne they have the most dangerous spinner. For their top seven batsmen, scoring centuries is more an expectation than an achievement.
The Australian players, unlike New Zealand's, don't seem to suffer from stress fractures or dodgy ankles, although there is incredible pressure to perform from those on the fringes. If Matthew Hayden doesn't recover from injury, Michael Hussey will step up for his debut, with a first-class average of over 50 to his name. Not one Kiwi player can boast such a record, while Hussey's 35 first-class centuries, not to mention the uncapped Brad Hodge's 36, compare with the New Zealand side's combined total of 77.
The key to New Zealand's competing against Australia is Shane Bond: the problem is that he's only one first-class match into his latest comeback. He does pose a genuine threat, with his ability to swing the ball at speeds nearing 150kph. The great Mark Waugh revealed as much in November, saying that Bond's pace caught the Australians on the hop when he made his debut in 2001-02. Bond also has the distinction of claiming Ricky Ponting's wicket each of the six times they have met in ODIs.
The inadequacies of the other NZ pace bowlers were illustrated the last time the two sides met, at Adelaide in November, when Chris Martin and James Franklin could not muster a wicket between them. And they return as New Zealand's strike force for the first Test at Christchurch. Daniel Vettori may be in top form again, but without Bond he is a lone ranger, likely to be in the confused position of filling the roles of stock bowler and expected wicket-taker. Iain O'Brien has an excellent first-class record behind him, but there's no guarantee he will actually make his debut yet, as there's a possibility that the offspinner Paul Wiseman will partner Vettori.
One plus has been the recent return to bowling of Nathan Astle, after sending down just one solitary over in a Test since December 2002. His ability to tie up one end has been sorely missed over the last two years. Following his shoulder injury in the one-day series, there is a question-mark about how many overs Astle will be able to churn out but, with a miserly career Test economy rate of 2.2 runs per over, he is New Zealand's safest bet to bowl straight and stem the flow of runs. When things started to slip in the Tests in Australia in 2001, Astle was the man Stephen Fleming turned to - and the result was 45 demanding overs at 2.4.
Of those who have missed out on the Test squad, Kyle Mills may feel a little aggrieved after taking the new ball during the one-dayers this summer, while the experiments with Jeff Wilson and Lance Hamilton lasted just two ODIs. Quite what the future holds for Wilson is likely to remain unknown for some time. Bracewell wanted to see if Wilson was up to international level, so the question to be asked now is whether the World XI matches (where he performed well) or the Australian series (where he didn't) are the most reliable indicators.
One quality Wilson was picked for was attitude, which is something the Aussies have no shortage of. At Adelaide, Justin Langer hit Franklin for a quartet of fours on the trot in just the second over of the game, to ignite a matchwinning double-century. It might be a good idea for New Zealand to visit Christchurch's famous wizard before the match starts, because nothing short of a magical performance like Langer's is likely to save them from losing this series.
Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show.