July 24, 2012

Five factors to beat New Zealand

If West Indies win the two-Test series, it will affirm that Sammy and Gibson's efforts to rebuild the side have been worth it

The latest ICC Test rankings put West Indies below New Zealand. Only perennial wooden-spooners Bangladesh are lower.

West Indies and New Zealand will view the upcoming Test series as an opportunity to gain some much-needed points. For West Indies, in particular, it is a big chance for upward mobility. Two-nil Test series losses at home to Australia and away to England have tempered a year so far in which Darren Sammy's side has raised its stocks in limited-overs cricket.

West Indies' T20 and one-day successes over New Zealand, along with the drawn home series with Australia in both those formats in March, have raised expectations that a period of sustained success may not be too far away. The false dawns, however, have come as frequently as the sun has risen over the islands. A Test series success over New Zealand will not in itself mark the start of better times, but victory will be an important landmark in the development of this side under Sammy.

He and coach Ottis Gibson need this Test series win to finish off the home season. They need it as proof that their rebuilding project is indeed gaining momentum and that they deserve more time to see it through.

West Indies chairman of selectors Clyde Butts emphasised how his panel is viewing this series when he said: "The selectors feel New Zealand is the team that we have got to show that we are capable of winning matches [against]. New Zealand is just ahead of us in the rankings, and I think would be what I would call our first test in terms of how we are moving forward."

Comprehensive success in the limited-overs games was a confidence booster. But over the two Tests in Antigua and Jamaica, Sammy and Co have to show how much they have learned in defeat this year. Here are five things that can determine whether West Indies can finish the season in style.

The Gayle factor
New Zealand had no answer for the big man in the two Florida T20s, and lost both. In his yard, in Sabina Park, Gayle imposed himself again in the first two ODIs to give West Indies a 2-0 series lead. In the third match, in St Kitts, however, New Zealand picked up Gayle cheaply to complete a comfortable win. Since that first failure, Gayle has not got hold of the bowling. But his runs and the time he spends at the crease in these two Tests will be vital if West Indies are to put up winning totals.

Top-order stability
So far this season, West Indies' top four have not produced anywhere near the required quantity of runs in Tests. There has been extraordinary pressure on Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the lower order. Gayle's input should make a difference. But this series is the ideal one for Marlon Samuels to emphasise that he is now a run scorer to be relied upon.

The Narine factor
After 15 overs in Test cricket, Sunil Narine is still waiting to claim his first wicket. It is difficult to see that barren run lasting too long against New Zealand. He may not have the advantage of being able to attack batsmen forced to be aggressive, as in the shorter formats, but New Zealand might as well have been trying to read Braille when they tried to figure out which way Narine would spin the ball. They may not have enough time in this series to work out a successful way of playing him.

Handling Vettori
As perhaps the best exponent of left-arm spin in the game at present, Vettori has both the experience and guile to embarrass the West Indies batsmen. How effective he is with both ball and bat may decide the series.

Applying the basics
"They are not an easy team to beat," Butts acknowledged. "Even when we had our strongest team, New Zealand was always a tough team for West Indies to beat." To overcome a side that has always prided itself on battling to the end, West Indies will have to play with a consistency that continues to elude them. And to do that, Sammy's side must get the basics right and play steady. With that formula, West Indies may just find that the key moments in this series will go their way.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express