June 21, 2014

Steady New Zealand need minor tweaks for Barbados

They could look to pushing Watling up to No. 6, and bringing Wagner back on a track that isn't likely to offer much to spinners

New Zealand's ten-wicket Test loss to West Indies in Trinidad is their first defeat in more than a year, signalling it's no time to panic on the selection front as they seek to hold on to their sixth-placed ranking in Barbados.

They played well in patches, but were principally let down by a collapse of nine for 101 in 32 overs after choosing to bat on the first day. However, if it hadn't been for BJ Watling and Mark Craig's partnership of 99 for the ninth wicket in the second innings, the tourists would have capitulated by more than an innings. The loss is largely an opportunity for introspection rather than examining external factors such as the batting strength of Kraigg Brathwaite in his return and the rejuvenated bowling of Jerome Taylor and Kemar Roach.

Drastic changes would be counter-productive, but subtle positional and personnel tweaks are worth considering heading into next week's decider at Kensington Oval.

One area to consider is whether to promote Watling to No. 6.

Captain Brendon McCullum said it best, speaking about Watling's second-innings contribution of 66 not out from that position after illness forced Hamish Rutherford down the order.

"He's fast becoming my favourite cricketer with his strength of character and fighting qualities. The guy never complains. He gets on with the job after keeping for 100-something overs [137.1 with no byes] then bats for close to seven hours [six hours 27 minutes] to try to save a Test. He's done it on numerous occasions and is becoming a strong leader in the group through his actions."

Hear, hear. Perhaps Watling should be seeing more of the innings rather than coaxing the tail from No. 7? Exposing him earlier might detract from his keeping but given he's already earned a reputation for gritting out the hours in rearguard actions, it's unlikely to taint his mindset.

Reinstating Neil Wagner could be another adjustment. The renowned toiler took 11 wickets at 24.54 in the two home Tests against India and six wickets at 10.50 from 18.1 overs in the two Jamaican XI practice matches.

Kensington Oval's recent record does not suggest it is particularly spin-friendly. Last year 14 of the 31 wickets fell to spin in West Indies' victory over Zimbabwe, but in the five previous Tests stretching to 2008 it was limited. Eight out of 35 were spin-induced in West Indies' 2012 defeat to Australia; five out of 33 in a draw with India; 14 out of 33 in the loss to South Africa; eight out of 17 in the draw with England; and ten out of 35 in another defeat to Australia.

It will depend on how this season's wicket shapes up, but those are hardly compelling statistics to go spin-heavy. That means a choice might be required between Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig.

Craig was Man-of-the-Match in Jamaica, then, in his partnership with Watling in Trinidad, he made 67 from 167 balls - the fifth-longest innings in Tests by a No. 10 in terms of deliveries faced. Sure, it's not his core role in the team but it demonstrates his tenacity.

Sodhi had the best New Zealand match figures of 4 for 117 in Trinidad but conceded more than 5.5 runs an over. Craig took none for 128 from 32 overs. Brathwaite's inclusion at the expense of Kieran Powell means the West Indies' top six is split 3-3 for left and right-handers as opposed to 4-2 in favour of lefties, which had created an extra reason to use Craig, with his stock ball spinning away from them.

Tom Latham's opening spot is secure but New Zealand must decide who should partner him, given Rutherford and Peter Fulton are both out of form. Whoever is picked probably has a last shot at Test redemption; otherwise it's back to the domestic Plunket Shield for at least a season.

Elsewhere, it would seem a knee-jerk reaction to revert to Corey Anderson as the designated allrounder for Jimmy Neesham. Neesham's superlative batting with centuries in his first two Tests before Trinidad hint he's worthy of persistence. However, his bowling offered little at Queen's Park Oval with one for 68 from 15 overs. Two wickets at 89 from 46 overs in three Tests suggest his medium pacers need to be more penetrative.

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