March 19, 2013

Lack of pace penetration a worry for New Zealand

The honours are even going to Auckland, but it's not all hunky dory for the hosts

New Zealand struggled in the second Test, in Wellington, as England 
reciprocated the hosts' Dunedin dominance.

Taking wickets was a struggle and the first-innings batting was
 flaky, yet there were encouraging signs. Kane Williamson produced a promising rearguard batting 
display in the second innings, Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling 
looked solid in the middle order, and Bruce Martin spun together a 
more confident performance as he adjusted to the Test game.

On the flip side: Ross Taylor missed the chance to fully expunge 
his unsettled Test form; Peter Fulton looked vulnerable, edging 
deliveries just outside off stump; and the pace attack lacked vim.

The opening two Tests have read like Agatha Christie whodunits 
with the final chapter ripped out. The denouement in Auckland 
could prove a lottery. It will be Eden Park's first time hosting a
 Test in seven years. The ground has notorious short boundaries, but fingers crossed top edges won't be rewarded with sixes as happened
 in the shorter forms. The drop-in pitch, crafted by well-regarded
 groundsman Mark Perham, will hopefully offer more lateral movement
 for seamers (at least on the opening day). Is this worth the risk for 
New Zealand? You bet, especially with just one home series victory in
 17 attempts against England (1983-84).

Williamson shapes as a key component to New Zealand's third-Test
 strategy. He brings a wholehearted straight-bat defence, a still head 
at the point of delivery, and a clock face of shots. His second
-innings 55 not out in Wellington blunted England's pace attack, although he looked 
vulnerable when Monty Panesar bowled into the footmarks.

Williamson's innings was a reminder of how he had eked out a draw (and an unbeaten 
century) at the Basin against a South African attack including Dale
 Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel last year.

Critics will point to his average (31.86 in 22 Tests) not being sufficient to bat
 at No. 3, but perseverance is required. After the same number of Tests, 
Martin Crowe (who debuted at 19, compared to Williamson's 20)
 averaged 31.60. Williamson can further move from "promising player"
 to "world-class No. 3" with another strong performance against a 
reputable attack.

His courage was reinforced by the century sixth-wicket
 stand between McCullum (69) and Watling (60) in the first innings.
 The pair have the ability to make an old ball look every bit its age
, and with pasts as openers, they're not daunted by the second new

Watling's batting and wicketkeeping look to have secured him a tour spot to 
England, despite the form of Wellington's Luke Ronchi (who could 
well join the tour). Watling has been one of the
 few to return from South Africa with his cricketing reputation 

McCullum led by example, combining batting with his captaincy 
duties, scoring between 69 and 79 six times in the series so far. If there's a minor quibble, he 
might need to look at his Test century conversion rate (18% - six out of 33). Compare that to Ross Taylor (32% 
- eight out of 25).

However, Taylor has struggled in his Test 
return, despite a couple of Plunket Shield half-centuries leading in.
 He has looked tentative early, and suffered the misfortune of 
receiving a top-of-off-stump delivery from Stuart Broad to be dismissed for a golden duck in Wellington. The Test petered out with Taylor
 41 not out in the second innings, looking on the cusp of regaining 

Fulton made a useful second-innings 45 but was dismissed in both 
innings doling catches to first slip with limited footwork. The 
English bowlers will be salivating. Still, scores of 55, 1 and 45 
have justified his selection 
so far, after more than three years' domestic toil.

New Zealand's biggest concern is the lack of pace penetration. It's
 the fourth consecutive Test in which the side has failed to take 20 wickets. Spearhead
 Tim Southee has returned from a thumb injury but his 
series return of one wicket for 216 runs from 83 overs is a concern.
 He has struggled to generate his usual late swing, and with little 
seam movement from benign pitches, it has weakened the New Zealand 
attack. None of the trio, which includes Trent Boult and Neil Wagner,
 lacked heart but England struck few problems on their way to 465.
 Doug Bracewell could bolster the starting 
XI in Auckland after recovering from his cut foot, but it would seem more like a
 punt than clear strategy. Since South Africa arrived a year ago, he 
has taken 25 wickets at 44.84 in 11 Tests. Wagner was the best bowler in Dunedin
, with seven wickets, while Southee and Boult deserve further opportunities
 in recognition of past form.

Martin is the feel-good story of the attack. The left-arm orthodox 
bowler was essentially selected as a stop-gap in Daniel 
Vettori's absence but has done enough in two Tests with nine wickets 
at 29.22 (combined with 62 sturdy runs in the lower order) to suggest
 he is a worthy candidate to tour England. While his Dunedin first-
innings haul of 4 for 43 might - Jonathan Trott excepted - be 
referred to as "mopping up the tail", he came right with his
 flight and guile in the second Test.

Taking the ball away from England's six right-hand batsmen in 
the top seven, Martin dismissed century-maker Nick Compton, Kevin 
Pietersen, Ian Bell and Joe Root. His first wicket came at 236 for
 1, so England had earned the right to play with some licence, but
 that was hardly Martin's fault. A lack of strike power and a tame pitch 
were complicit.

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday