Judgment day for Vettori's team
The one-day series between England and New Zealand is one of the most eagerly awaited in years by local fans who are still unsure how good Daniel Vettori's team is. Recent performances have given little away and the side to play England has a new look.
Since the last time the teams met, when New Zealand won convincingly at the World Cup, the home side is missing five players and the regenerating team lost the Twenty20 series 2-0. The two most notable absentees are Stephen Fleming and Shane Bond. Fleming, who retired after 280 matches and 8037 runs, left a big gap when he departed, but the loss of Bond is bigger.
Bond, who has terminated his New Zealand contract and joined the Indian Cricket League, has been the spearhead whenever he has been fit to play. In 67 ODIs he has taken 125 wickets at the phenomenal average of 19.32 and his departure is as significant as when Richard Hadlee stepped down in 1990. Justin Vaughan, the New Zealand Cricket chief executive, felt the departure of Bond was by far New Zealand's biggest loss to the ICL and was a concerning development for the international game. The upshot is they now lack a genuine fast man.
The others not included since the previous encounter are Lou Vincent, who has been dropped, Craig McMillan has retired and James Franklin is injured. In another major blow, Vettori may not be fit for the beginning of the series. He rested from the two Twenty20 matches with an ankle injury and is in doubt for the first ODI.
Brendon McCullum, the stand-in captain, said Vettori would be sorely missed. "Dan's injury is quite a big blow to the make-up of our bowling stocks," he told NZPA, "and also just the general team."
With the loss of experience, the remaining senior players must step up if New Zealand are going to retain third place in the ODI rankings. Scott Styris, Brendon McCullum and Peter Fulton will need to score their share of runs, while Chris Martin and Kyle Mills will lead the bowling attack.
Although Styris has just announced his retirement from Tests, he must now lead the ODI batting line-up. He has an impressive recent record in ODIs and this will need to continue if New Zealand are to compete with England. "The rigours of international cricket have become increasingly demanding," he said, "and I would like to extend my career by focusing on the shorter versions of the game."
The niggles and injuries he has suffered by playing first-class cricket over recent years have made it difficult for him to get on to the park. "I am really enjoying both one-day and Twenty20 cricket," he said, "and am looking forward to being heavily involved with New Zealand on our journey to the World Cup in 2011."
While his fitness to stay involved in the first-class arena was a concern, there are no worries about his productivity in limited-overs affairs. Styris excelled at the World Cup, making 499 runs at 83.16, and followed that up in South Africa where he averaged 62.
Among the bowlers, Mills has a good ODI record and much will depend on him as they try to cover for Bond. He has already shown his ability to take wickets without having Bond at the other end. In the three match ODI series in South Africa late last year he took nine at 11.33, while he captured another nine against Bangladesh at 12.55. England will offer a greater challenge to his improvements.
Martin, on the other hand, has a less than impressive record, but has come of age in Tests over the last few years. In the shorter version of the game, he has played just 15 matches and faces a steep learning curve against an England team of young and experienced batsmen. His omissions over recent seasons have been due to his high economy rate of 4.95 runs per over and it must be brought down closer to four for him to be useful over the next five matches.
The New Zealand opening combination will be another interesting focus of the series. If the young Auckland batsman Jesse Ryder opens with McCullum, there could be fireworks from the beginning. Ryder's selection has met a mixed reaction. Adam Parore, the former New Zealand wicketkeeper, is a critic and told TVNZ he had seen Ryder on the evening news and "there was no room for fat players in international cricket because the days of David Boon are gone".
But Hadlee, the chairman of selectors, believes Ryder can form an explosive opening partnership with McCullum. "He has certainly dominated New Zealand A tours," Hadlee said, "and deserves an opportunity."
His performance is as highly anticipated as the series itself due to the debate over his selection and because he has been involved in a number of disciplinary problems off the field. One of these was when he signed to play for Ireland last year as an overseas professional and failed to turn up to the match against Surrey at the Oval.
If the opening partnership can succeed and the bowling attack can get some quick wickets, New Zealand have a good chance of winning the series. But if not, their fans may decide they are no longer a team of the quality that drove them to a world cup semi-final.
The 2-1 loss in South Africa was disappointing, but very few teams come away from there satisfied, and the victory was only the second New Zealand success in that country. On the way home Vettori's men faced Australia in the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy and were comprehensively beaten, something most teams encounter.
The next assignment was a home series against Bangladesh, who were annihilated as expected. This is why the jury is still out on Vettori's regenerating team. With the arrival of England, there are no expectations either way, so the fans will finally have a chance to decide how good, or bad, their national side is.
Peter Burdon is a freelance writer based in Christchurch