October 28, 2013

Plenty to ponder for New Zealand

The two-Test series against Bangladesh offered some positives but concerns remain, especially with the bowling unit and opening combination

A sense of the inevitable surrounded New Zealand's drawn Test series against Bangladesh. Neither the world's No. 8 nor No. 10 seemed destined to profit on dull pitches with rain intervening to prevent the push for a result in Mirpur. If the annals of Test cricket were a house, this series would be the faded wallpaper in the spare bedroom. Yawn.

The visitors had everything to lose. Defeat would have built the perception they haven't made a modicum of progress since a solid home series against England. Yet New Zealand had the only realistic chance of winning both Tests. They made enough runs but lacked the penetrative bowling to take 20 wickets on unresponsive clay. The slip in points (from 79 to 75) on the Test rankings is almost irrelevant given Sri Lanka is seventh on 88 and Zimbabwe ninth on 34.

Pre-tour, coach Mike Hesson said any suggestion they should whitewash the hosts was "an uneducated view, given how well they play at home. It's a cauldron." Whether New Zealand talked themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy is a moot point but Bangladesh have some skilful players emerging, such as Mominul Haque and Sohag Gazi.

Four areas are pertinent in the analysis of New Zealand's performance: the loss of bowling mojo, the emergence of Corey Anderson and Ish Sodhi, the status of the opening partnership, and the need for Kane Williamson to stamp his authority this summer.

The absence of Tim Southee's pace bowling was palpable. There was no doubting the toil of Trent Boult (three wickets at 58.66) and Doug Bracewell (three wickets at 71.33 - hampered by a couple of dropped catches in the second Test) but hollow exhaustion presided. Anderson also lacked spark - two of his three wickets were fortuitous, coming from short, wide deliveries. Neil Wagner looked sharp in the second Test, which included his first five-wicket bag in Tests. He again proved his worth at first change but Southee should offer extra venom once he recovers from his ankle injury. The situation wasn't helped by too many gift boundaries from spinners Bruce Martin and Sodhi in the first Test.

Sodhi struggled on debut but showed enough promise to get the nod over Martin for the second Test. It was the right call. New Zealand's search for a legspinner continues to be like that for the Holy Grail. Sodhi's arrival on the Test scene brings hope. On Thursday he celebrates his 21st birthday.

Since the country's best exponent, Jack Alabaster, eked out 49 wickets in 21 Tests between 1955 and 1972, legspinners have been rare. Only Greg Loveridge, Brooke Walker and Todd Astle have been picked with that skill in mind. They have seven Tests between them.

Sodhi packages rhythm, loop and speed and an attacking mindset into an action reminiscent of India's Anil Kumble. In the second Test his three first-innings wickets for 59 runs from 18.5 overs - including prominent allrounder Shakib Al Hasan - made you sit up straight on the couch. Eliminate the glut of four-balls and he'll threaten. Sodhi took just seven wickets at 73.14 in four matches on this winter's New Zealand development tour to India and Sri Lanka but the selection hunch appears to be paying off. His batting also looks promising, with 58 from No. 10 in New Zealand's first-innings 437 in the second Test.

New Zealand's opening partnership is worthy of perseverance but needs to show consistency to prove its initial compelling statistics

Similarly the backing of Anderson on the development tour, where he made a century against India A, is paying dividends. His bowling struggled for zest but he redeemed himself with the bat in true allrounder fashion. The maiden Test century in his second match lent gravitas to New Zealand's cause.

Elsewhere, the opening partnership is worthy of perseverance but needs to show consistency to prove its initial compelling statistics.

Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford are presumably ensconced for the home series against West Indies, injury permitting. They average 40.83 runs together in 12 innings against England and Bangladesh. Compare that to the revered, almost mythical combination of John Wright and Bruce Edgar who averaged 31.82 runs in 56 innings from 1978 to 1986 against Australian and West Indian attacks in their pomp. The incumbents deserve their spots on that evidence.

Still, there are question marks.

Fulton looks comfortable on relatively flat tracks (for example, Eden Park, where he scored two centuries last summer, and Chittagong) but struggled against the seaming ball in England (36 runs from four innings). By comparison, Rutherford has not passed 42 in the 11 innings since his century on debut in Dunedin. He exudes left-handed elegance early - there are shades of Justin Langer - but temptation is getting the better of him, often outside off stump, when he gets a start.

Martin Guptill and Tom Latham are the immediate back-ups. Guptill has an average of 26.53 opening in 45 Test innings, despite dominating the position at provincial and limited-overs games. Take Zimbabwe and West Indies out of the equation and that opening average drops to 19.92. Latham is yet to make his Test debut but is seen as a contender (especially as a left-hander) if there are problems. His provincial record (average 35.95 in 30 matches) hasn't fulfilled its age-group promise but he has shown aptitude in the New Zealand environment as part of the one-day squad. Latham, as captain of the New Zealand A side, recently made two half centuries and averaged 35.40 in three "Test" matches against opposition from Sri Lanka and India.

Finally, the evidence in Bangladesh suggests this summer is time for Williamson to turn promise into consistent productivity after posting scores of 114 (three of his four Test centuries have been on the subcontinent), 74 and 62. He seems a better batsman than his average of 34.78 in 49 Test innings. That figure has even improved this year from 30.27 before the home series against England. Coupled with his nagging offspin he is a valuable asset.

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