Southee eases New Zealand's pace worries
Daniel Vettori shared just one concern for New Zealand's future as he stepped down from Test captaincy on Wednesday - that the team lacked genuine strike-bowling prospects for the future. "We still need to find fast bowlers coming in," he said after his last Test at the helm. And on a day where the New Zealand attack failed to bowl out Pakistan on a worn pitch to win the match, it seemed to fit.
Since Shane Bond's retirement, New Zealand have lacked a fast bowler who can lead the attack in all forms of the game. Their abysmal returns in late 2010 confirmed it. A 4-0 drubbing at the hands of cricket's perennial whipping boys followed by 5-0 whitewash by India laid bare their inadequate attack and emphasised its inexperience. The fast men did not penetrate, and Vettori could do little when teams opted to see him off safely and attack at the other end. New Zealand needed a spearhead who can make the vital breakthroughs and allow the other bowlers to operate around him, and it seemed as though they simply didn't have one. Today though, on a Wellington pitch that was expected to be a belter, Tim Southee made a sizeable stride towards picking up the mantle.
Steaming in from the Northern End, Southee treated the sparse Cake Tin crowd to a rare exhibition of swing bowling. His first spell was one-day magic. Sharp, bouncy, angling in and shaping away beautifully. The batsmen almost looked bemused as ball after seaming ball leapt off the pitch and away from the outside edge. Wasn't this pitch supposed to be full of runs? The booming cover drives were stashed away in a hurry, and out came the tentative prods and dangled pokes. It had quickly become apparent to the Pakistan top order that Southee's spell was about survival. Mohammad Hafeez, Kamran Akmal and Asad Shafiq didn't make it to double-figures.
But what made Southee's spell truly special was astute variation. New-ball spells are tough enough to negotiate when the ball is moving away at close to 140kph, but when skilful away swing is punctuated by vicious inswing and the odd lifter is thrown in, even great batsmen are reduced to guesswork: playing uncertainly and hoping like hell they've got the line right. Before long, Southee was beating both edges, and doing it almost every ball. The indippers that the batsmen were good enough to edge, crashed into their pads or whistled past the leg stump and only the men in form could get anywhere close to the ones that were darting away.
Hafeez got a few going away to begin with, before the one that jagged in sparked an lbw appeal. Next ball, he managed to edge the one that went away again. Kamran had fished around against Southee for nine deliveries when he decided he'd lash out with a square drive. The resultant edge flew to Jesse Ryder and cricket's most unlikely athlete completed a typically impressive take. Asad Shafiq must have been watching his team-mates' attempts to get bat on ball and he looked to be expecting the outswinger. But the third ball from Southee, he got the other one, as it jagged back to rap him on the back leg. Southee's six-over spell had ripped the heart out of the Pakistan top order, as he collected three of the top four for 16.
When he returned to the attack, Afridi was threatening a counterattack. He'd already been dropped looking to slog over the bowler's head, but the close call had apparently not been enough to sober Afridi. Southee did for him within two overs. Not with extravagant movement this time, but with a little extra bounce achieved via a scrambled seam. Not a bad ploy to a batsman looking to play cross-batted shots. Misbah's wicket was just the icing on the cake. A well earned five-wicket haul for a bowler who was nigh unplayable for much of his first spell.
There was little the batsmen could do against such high-quality bowling. Waqar Younis chose not to deride the Pakistan batsmen for their loss, and instead gave due recognition to Southee for his impact on the game. "Instead of giving any credit to the pitch or anything else, one should give credit to the New Zealand bowlers, especially Tim Southee," Waqar said. "He swung the ball and made sure the ball was in the right area. It's one thing to swing it, but when he bowled in the right areas as well, it made it very difficult. We just kept nicking it."
Fast-bowling performances like Southee's have been a rarity for New Zealand since Bond's retirement. In fact in 2010, only Southee delivered the kind of spells that turned a match on its head. Brendon McCullum's epic 116 in Christchurch against Australia last year would have all been in vain were it not for Southee's yorkers, which halted a rampaging Cameron White onslaught to tie the game. Southee then delivered an incredible Super Over from which only six runs were made to give New Zealand their win of the year. His five-for against Pakistan in the first Twenty20 in December was also such a performance. Pakistan had been rocketing along at 58 for 1 in 5.5 overs before Southee ripped the heart out of the Pakistan innings with five-wicket haul which included a hat-trick, and ensured that Pakistan's target didn't stretch New Zealand.
His progress in Tests too has not been unimpressive. Daniel Vettori thought Southee's bowling in the first innings against Pakistan in Hamilton was "his best Test-match performance." His line and his aggression on a difficult Basin Reserve pitch was also laudable, if unrewarded with wickets. While Vettori is concerned for his side's future unless they unearth a Bond-like strike bowler, Southee has been slowly improving all along- perhaps not dramatically, but in noticeable increments, enough to repay the selectors' faith in him despite some forgettable performances.
The good news for New Zealand is that at 22 and a disposition to remain largely uninjured, Southee is has a long career ahead. With an ageing, somewhat ineffective pace attack in Tests and a one-dimensional bowling unit that relies heavily on Vettori in the shorter forms, New Zealand needs Southee to stand up and lead the attack, particularly as inexperienced pace prospects like Hamish Bennett and Adam Milne, begin to come into the fray. Southee is a long way from earning the moniker of "spearhead" yet, but a few more rip-roaring performances like today's and he might eventually get there.