March 17, 2009

Leather hunt ahoy

New Zealand's bowling lacks penetration, and preparing seaming wickets won't be the ticket either

To say the forthcoming Test series between India and New Zealand will be challenging for the home side would be a huge understatement. If everything plays out as suspected, it could be 15 long days of leather-chasing for the New Zealand players.

The word on the street is to expect flat batsman-friendly wickets - a knee-jerk reaction to the green ones the last time the Indians arrived. Ironically, back then the New Zealand bowlers possibly didn't need all the assistance they got from the surfaces, because they had Shane Bond, who was the standout bowler in the series and provided New Zealand with wicket-taking potential on all surfaces. This time round, the home team's bowling attack could very much do with all the assistance it can get from the pitches.

New Zealand's senior seam bowler this time will be Kyle Mills. Sure, he is ranked at No. 3 in the ICC ODI rankings, but in Tests he sits at a lowly 41. The highest-ranked seam bowlers for New Zealand in Test cricket right now are Chris Martin at 19 and James Franklin at 24. Martin has only just got back into any sort of favour with the selectors and Franklin has won selection as a batsman. The most effective seam bower in Test cricket for New Zealand of late has been Iain O'Brien, and his ranking, 27, leads you to conclude that penetration is not the strong point of the New Zealand Test team right now.

Daniel Vettori is their highest-ranked player, at 11, and if the wickets are as predicted then he will be crucial, but really, who do you give the edge to - Vettori versus the Indian batsmen or Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra versus the New Zealand batsmen? Vettori is a wonderful bowler but performances over time against the better Test nations have shown him to be consistent but not destructive.

Without doubt the major hurdle will be New Zealand's ability to take 20 wickets. In fact, if the tracks are flat then bowling India out once could be a major issue too.

So what to do? Well, the obvious is to turn the sprinklers on and leave a good coating of grass on the wickets. However, that may not suit New Zealand either. The average New Zealand batsman is not freaked out by a little sideways movement - he is used to it. But a bit of sideways coming from the likes of the evergreen Zaheer Khan and the ever-improving Ishant Sharma may be just as freaky to the local batsmen as the movement coming from Mills and Co is to the tourists. If it comes down to a fast-bowling shootout in hostile conditions then it may not be a case of advantage New Zealand but simply a lottery that no one can really win.

The average New Zealand batsman is not freaked out by a little sideways movement - he is used to it. But a bit of sideways coming from the likes of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma may be just as freaky to the local batsmen as the movement coming from Mills and Co is to the tourists

New Zealand cricket fans have enjoyed the display of destructive hitting that has come from Indian blades during the ODIs, and possibly would not feel cheated should the likes of Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman fill their boots in the Test matches. After all it is most likely the last we will see of the latter three in New Zealand. For that very reason these players may feel they owe New Zealand a few runs too, and they could be highly motivated to score heavily in a country where they have not done themselves justice in the past.

I can't actually see much to get excited about as a New Zealander eager for a victory for the home side. If there is anything I could hold on to as hope, it may just be what happened in Auckland in ODI five. The result of that match - India rolled for 149 - showed that the New Zealand seamers don't actually need an unfair amount of assistance from the wicket to come back into the game. All they need is enough movement to ensure the Indian players cannot simply stand and deliver; that they cannot just hit through the line, paying scant regard for length. The conditions asked them to show more process and more patience. Maybe it was the dead-rubber scenario, and maybe with Test results on the line the Indians will pay the conditions more respect, but it showed that there was wicket-taking potential in the New Zealanders when they get a skerrick of help and a vulnerable Indian tail, should they get to it.

Of the venues in use, Hamilton may offer some movement on day one but the others, Wellington and Napier, may only provide it for a session at most. Vettori had better hope for his usual luck at the toss, but inserting the Indian batsmen in conditions that don't scream bowler's paradise will be one heck of a big call. Even if it does look like there is some help for his seamers, he needs to think carefully about the scenario that says if you bowl first you bat last, and if you don't make use of the early movement then good luck playing out for a draw on the last day against Harbhajan and Mishra.

Yep, it's a heck of a big challenge for New Zealand this one, with very few avenues to find a strategic advantage, but would you expect anything different in a contest where No. 3 plays No. 8?

Former New Zealand opener Mark Richardson is now a television commentator and cricket columnist