No room for selection hesitancy
New Zealand coach John Wright and captain Ross Taylor face cricket's equivalent of chainsaw juggling when selecting the XI for the third and final Test against South Africa. They need to give an impression their team has the consummate skill to succeed without hinting to so much as a whiff of fear. Any selection hesitancy will have the uncompromising South Africans sawing into them.
New Zealand risk being scarred for the rest of the year (which includes at least seven Tests) if there is a lack of fight. That's despite several credible longer-format performances this summer, including the first Test of the current series in Dunedin.
Batting time is the biggest challenge. The prospect of that happening against South Africa has been a mirage on the horizon.
At 106 for 2 in Dunedin, hope emerged that a decent lead could be eked out following the bowlers' efforts to oust South Africa for 238. That was followed by the middle order - Brendon McCullum, Taylor and Kane Williamson - falling within the space of 29 runs.
New Zealand still managed a lead of 35 but that was too little to put pressure on South Africa's second innings. Chasing 401 to win, inclement weather meant no one will know what McCullum (58 not out) and Taylor (48 not out) might have achieved on the final day.
In Hamilton, the ignominy of collapsing from 133 for 2 to 133 for 7 will be hard to shake, especially after further graft from McCullum and Taylor. The second-innings destruction seemed inevitable as South Africa's bowlers found their rhythm.
Daniel Flynn deserves his selection on the back of first-class form but asking him to open seems odd, and indeed cruel, when McCullum has been suited to do the job in recent seasons. Batting at five for Northern Districts (and six when Daniel Vettori plays), Flynn has made 584 first-class runs at 83.42 this season with centuries in his last three matches after recovering from a long-standing hip injury. As a left-hander, he potentially breaks up South Africa's bowling patterns. He may well open so he does not get lumped next to the other top-six left-hander, Vettori.
Flynn has played at least two Tests against every nation barring South Africa. He has batted anywhere from opener (one duck) to No. 7 (one innings of 49) with his best numbers coming at No. 6 (average 36.80 from nine innings). Yet by donning the pads first, he faces the same baptism of fire that claimed Rob Nicol.
With Flynn scheduled to go in first it raises questions whether Dean Brownlie will immediately resume his place. Presumably he will be slotted in regardless after strong efforts in his four Tests to date. He would be likely to come in at six pushing Vettori to seven, Kruger van Wyk to eight and leaving a conventional attack of three fast bowlers. A less likely option could be bringing in all-rounder Andrew Ellis at nine as a pace bowler who can strengthen the tail.
However, it seems unfair to punish the fast-bowling quartet for their success in dismissing South Africa relatively cheaply (238 and 253) in their two first innings. Chris Martin and Doug Bracewell pick themselves on the back of their form this summer, as does Mark Gillespie after his Seddon Park five-for. With Brent Arnel axed, it is to be seen if left-armer Trent Boult returns, if Ellis becomes a default compromise to shore up the batting or if the team accepts that a trio of fast bowlers will have to suffice if New Zealand are to have a better chance of winning.
A drier Basin Reserve pitch could see legspinner Tarun Nethula come into the frame for a wildcard debut to paralyse South Africa's footwork. There is a case that the pitch could offer assistance for spin later on. In the last Test at the venue in January 2011, spinners accounted for 12 of the 35 wickets. If Nethula is looking for a legspinning benchmark, Shane Warne took 14 wickets in three Tests at 25.07 in Wellington.
Edited by Abhishek Purohit
Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday