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February 26, 2013
For at least four of the New Zealand XI who will face England in Queenstown, it is more than just an average tour match. Success could yet influence the home side's selection for the first Test in Dunedin.
The players with most to gain (and perhaps lose) are the New Zealand XI captain Tom Latham, his opener partner Hamish Rutherford and pace bowlers Mark Gillespie and Neil Wagner. Rutherford is the strong favourite to be handed his Test debut to open with the recalled Peter Fulton, but a notable performance from 20-year-old Latham, promoted to the captaincy for this match after Luke Ronchi's injury, could yet have a bearing.
The New Zealand selectors also left one place open in the Test squad when it was named at the weekend and that will be filled after the game in Queenstown with another fast bowler. Currently, Gillespie is the leading candidate but a haul for Wagner, who made his Test debut against West Indies last year and played again in South Africa, will be noted.
Gillespie took 11 wickets in two Tests against South Africa in 2012 following a gap of more than three years between appearances. However, an ankle injury then ruled him out of the tours of West Indies and Sri Lanka. He was recalled as a replacement for the South Africa trip but missed out again after picking up a side strain.
Wagner has enjoyed consistent domestic success, including 30 wickets this season at 25.43, but so far has been unable to translate that in his three Test appearances. However, even with so much at stake for some of the players, Latham is confident that personal goals will not distract from the team ethos. "It will be in the back of our minds that if we score a few runs or take a few wickets then we could be in the Test, but I'm not really looking at it from that point of view," he said.
"It's a really good opportunity for the eleven guys involved. England are a quality outfit and we have seen that over the last few years. We are going to come here with high expectations of ourselves and hopefully we can do the right things on our behalf."
The fact that Latham is so close to the Test team during a season where he has averaged in the low 30s and has a career mark of a modest 34.48 highlights the lack of depth in New Zealand cricket. Filling the opening positions has been especially problematic - Martin Guptill was likely to have retained his place before injury despite a lean run in the longest format - and now that Brendon McCullum has moved back down the order there will be an entirely new pair in Dunedin whoever gets the final nod.
Adding to the oddity of Latham's situation is that he is a middle-order batsman and wicketkeeper in the Plunket Shield for Canterbury, although he can at least draw on his top-order experiences from youth cricket.
"All through growing up, I was an opener, it was just when I started playing first-class cricket for Canterbury that I settled in the middle," he said. "I opened in the A series in Lincoln at the start of the summer, so it's not foreign to me at all. I've tightened up on a few areas so looking forward to the challenge.
"My form hasn't been as good [in first-class cricket], especially in the first part of the season but in the last few games I was starting to hit the ball well again. The feet are going well so I'm feeling confident."
Given that Latham and Rutherford will open for the New Zealand XI, it could well be a partnership for the full side in the near future depending on the success of Fulton's return and how much long-term faith is put in Guptill. If that does come to pass, it will bring two sons of former New Zealand Test cricketers side by side.
"It's really nice to have him by my side," Tom said. "He's always on the phone and up for a chat, but the coaching staff at Canterbury and New Zealand have done a great job over the last few years so he hasn't been so hands-on with that. But he's certainly someone I can rely on. He says the phone's always on."
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