February 5, 2014

Questions over Fulton, Hamish and Ish

New Zealand are keeping the faith in their opening pair and legspinner, but they are yet to prove their consistency at the top level

New Zealand enter the two-Test series against India with a level of confidence seldom seen. The pace bowling stocks of Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner have coordinated well against West Indies; Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson have gorged themselves on runs most of the summer; Brendon McCullum looks astute leading the team and may be in his most natural batting position at No. 5; Corey Anderson appears a genuine allrounder in progress; and BJ Watling's keeping and batting at No. 7 radiate reliability.

Two areas of selection intrigue remain: How will legspinner Ish Sodhi bowl against batsmen seemingly born with a genetic code of dancing feet and supple wrists to decipher spin? And how strong is the foundation behind the fine statistical record Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford have fashioned as an opening partnership?

Sodhi faces his biggest challenge against India after taking 11 Test wickets at 51.45 in his five-Test career. He has a useful googly and topspinner and his contribution of 5 for 29 to help Northern Districts defeat Canterbury on Sunday will boost his confidence. The 21-year-old also soaked up a nearly two-hour tutorial with Shane Warne at the Melbourne Cricket Ground nets during the Boxing Day Test. Sodhi returned realising raw talent alone won't guarantee greatness in the sport's longest form.

"Talking to him about tactics, he came up with so many little things beyond what I'd ever thought about," Sodhi said. "He was all about working batsmen out mentally and stressed it was about more than just how you bowled the ball. He suggested taking into account conditions, the strengths and weaknesses of your own fielders and creating a facade to keep batsmen out of rhythm. It was, without doubt, the best legspin session of my life."

Sodhi claims to have found other ways to intimidate, given a spinner can't bowl a bouncer. "He [Warne] was the absolute master, using his entire body rather than his hand to put 'work' on the ball. We also spoke about subtle variations like using the angle of the crease. He agreed it can be a good idea to land the ball on the same spot most of the time but said it's not the spot you bowl on but how the ball gets there through a different trajectory which is important. We bowled to a young up-and-coming Australian batsman and after ten minutes he [Warne] pulled us aside and said, 'How are you going to try to get him out?' He then described the batsman's strengths and weaknesses. That awareness is the reason he is world-class."

Sodhi says he has also benefited from working with McCullum as captain: "Baz has an attacking mindset, which I love." The faith is reciprocated. Speaking after the West Indies triumph, McCullum said: "I'm rapt with Ish. I know he hasn't bowled a great deal but this [series] has been great for his development. The luxury of our pace attack allows us to have the type of [attacking] bowler he is. I've got a tremendous amount of confidence in his ability."

The only problem now lies with the spin-proof techniques of the Indian batsmen.

Fulton and Rutherford are also under observation, but an average opening partnership of 38.41 in 17 innings compares well to the revered combination of John Wright and Bruce Edgar, who averaged 31.82 runs in 56 innings from 1978 to 1986. The incumbents deserve their spots on that evidence.

Still, after a partnership of 95 to start the West Indies series, there have been question marks. They have not endured beyond the 13th over in their last four outings, with stands of 3, 14, 18, and 33. Fulton looks comfortable on relatively flat tracks (for instance, Eden Park, where he scored two centuries last summer against England, and Chittagong) but struggled against the seaming ball in England (36 runs from four innings). He returned to form with 78 not out against Northern Districts in the Plunket Shield last week.

By comparison, Rutherford has passed 50 once in the 16 innings since his century on debut. He exudes left-handed elegance early but temptation seems to be triumphing after he gets a start. However, he impressed coach Mike Hesson with 48 not out to get New Zealand home in the final West Indies Test. He has backed up with 108 against Auckland and 96 against Canterbury in his most recent first-class fixtures.

"Hamish doesn't have a problem with conversion [into bigger scores] at first-class level," Hesson says. "But in Tests he's often got himself out after doing the hard work, particularly against spin. His innings in Hamilton was important against a high-quality spin bowler like [Sunil] Narine."

Martin Guptill and Tom Latham are the pair's immediate competitors. Guptill has an average of 26.53 opening in 45 Test innings, despite dominating the position at provincial and limited-overs level. He recently made first-class centuries for Auckland against Northern and Central Districts before scoring a white-ball ton against India in the tied third ODI.

Latham is yet to debut in Tests but is seen as a contender if there are problems. His first-class record (average 42.22 in 35 matches) has risen rapidly in a season that has included his highest score of 241 not out against Wellington. As captain of the New Zealand A side, the left-hander made two half-centuries and averaged 35.40 in three unofficial Test matches against equivalent opposition from Sri Lanka and India on the subcontinent in August and September.

"Martin and Tom have been discussed as options and they are pressing their claims, but we're showing faith in Hamish and Peter," Hesson says. "Hamish demonstrated good qualities in Hamilton to get us through, and we all know what Peter did last time at Eden Park [as the fourth New Zealander to score two centuries in the same Test]. It's a hard side to make at the moment."

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