March 3, 2013

No dearth of quicks for New Zealand

Behind the four frontline fast bowlers are five others pushing for spots

New Zealand's bowlers could not fully dismiss South Africa during their most recent Test series, yet optimism brims heading into the first Test against England in Dunedin.

In the New Zealand XI's three-wicket win over the England XI in the warm-up match in Queenstown, the hosts' second-tier pace bowlers, Mark Gillespie, Neil Wagner and Jimmy Neesham, took 15 of the 19 England wickets. Of the top six batsmen, seven of their 12 dismissals were caught behind. Suddenly there is a sense England might be more vulnerable, especially with just Ian Bell (158), Alastair Cook (60) and Matt Prior (68) getting past 70 in either innings. Obviously New Zealand's enthusiasm needs to be tempered by the direction the match might have taken had England used Jimmy Anderson and Steve Finn, but hope is justified.

A green-tinged University Oval pitch, a favourable coin toss and a slip cordon on red alert could help unleash a significant weapon for New Zealand. Spearhead Tim Southee (24), Trent Boult (23) and Doug Bracewell (22) form one of the younger international attacks, but on their day - think Hobart, December 2011 or Colombo, November 2012 - they are formidable.

Southee swinging the ball away from the right-hander, Boult bringing the ball back, and Bracewell hitting the seam on a good length can invoke batting claustrophobia. Southee and Bracewell have both had significant first-class wicket hauls in the past month. Southee reinforced that with gems to dismiss Cook and Jonathan Trott on his way to figures of 3 for 48 in the final one-dayer. Boult has not unduly troubled England in the shorter form but will have taken confidence knocking the top off the Central Districts batting order on his way to figures of 4 for 38 in a 50-over match last week.

Wagner could join the trio after his New Zealand XI match figures of 6 for 154. Further debate is required about whether it is better to form a four-pace-bowler battery or include spinner Bruce Martin for variety. New Zealand may be ranked eighth in the Test world but there is significant competition for bowling places. Behind Southee, Boult, Bracewell and Wagner lie Mitchell McClenaghan, Chris Martin, Gillespie, Ian Butler and Brent Arnel.

McClenaghan must be seriously considered if he can overcome his side strain by the third Test. His aggressive performances against South Africa and England have him tagged by many as the find of the summer.

The experience of 38-year-old Chris Martin as the country's third-highest Test wicket-taker can't be ignored, but he may bear some blame for New Zealand's inability to bowl South Africa out in Cape Town. His form, after overcoming a hamstring injury, is being monitored in the Ford Trophy one-dayers.

Queenstown's effort showed Gillespie is not quite back to his best, but the 33-year-old is clearly in the frame. His 11 for 149 against Auckland last month has been noted. Last summer he came back into the Test team as a bolter and scythed through South Africa with five and six-wicket bags in the first innings of the last two matches.

Butler showed first-class venom before getting recalled to the New Zealand T20 team. He took 10 for 111 against Northern Districts and is third on the Plunket Shield wicket-taking table with 39 at 25.12.

It is almost a year since 34-year-old Arnel played a Test, but as the top first-class wicket-taker (45 at 24.84), his form can't be ignored, even if he might lack for pace. Try telling that to Vernon Philander.

New Zealand are yet to be beaten in four Tests at the University Oval. There have been wins over Bangladesh (2008) and Pakistan (2009), and draws with West Indies (2008) and South Africa (2012, when rain halted an evenly poised last day). Historically it has favoured seam and swing. Shane Bond (in his final Test), Iain O'Brien and Chris Martin battered Pakistan on the final afternoon; South Africa were dismissed before lunch on the second day for 238.

Such snippets hint that New Zealand's strike force could succeed. Now the bowlers have to prove it.

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