South Africa v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Port Elizabeth, 3rd day January 13, 2013

New Zealand's problems start at the top

Martin Guptill has not had success as a Test opener and Brendon McCullum is not playing his natural game at the top. New Zealand must look at other options
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A good rebuilding job can only be done if it starts with the foundation, which is the lesson New Zealand should take with them as their Test side leaves South Africa. Their all-round woefulness in the series is a symptom of the trouble at the top and the opening combination should be the first to be examined.

By New Zealand's own admission, the current pair is not what they planned on. On the eve of the series, Martin Guptill was due to open with Peter Fulton, who was then ruled out because of a recurrence of a knee injury. Fulton did not have a great record either but he had been recalled and not having him forced changes to the plan. Brendon McCullum to promoted himself to open, and in so doing he had to fundamentally change his own approach.

McCullum is an aggressive player and wanted to infuse that belligerence into his troops. He arrived in South Africa and talked about playing positively, not asking his team to cower to the notion that they were underdogs. That did not work in the tour opener - the first Twenty20 - when New Zealand's enthusiasm to show intent had the same result as a kettle that is boiling over.

McCullum acknowledged New Zealand had showed no sense of judgement and they returned with a better idea of how to apply the attacking mindset in the following match. The same can be said of their efforts in both Tests.

New Zealand's first innings in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth were implosions caused by poor shot selection and being overawed by pace, but they staged competent comebacks in the second innings. At this level, that is just not good enough. Matches don't start in the second dig and McCullum was one of the first to say so.

He made attempts to lead by example, reining in his own game so severely that those who have covered his career since its beginnings say this is the most restrained they have ever seen him bat. They were correct because in this Test match McCullum was at his most reserved. His innings in this match are the slowest and second slowest of his career in terms of strike rate. The 13 in the first innings took 97 minutes and 61 balls while his 11 in the second took 88 minutes and 57 deliveries.

Like a Test opener should, McCullum saw off the fast bowlers and the new ball. Like a Test opener should not, he went on to be dismissed by the spinner three times in four innings this series. McCullum had called Robin Peterson "innocuous," perhaps in his attempt to disguise his own issues against left-arm spin. In six of his last eight innings, he has been dismissed by a left-arm spinner. They have also accounted for his wicket almost a quarter (22%) of the time even though those bowlers have only bowled a sixth of the overs (17%) to him.

As the new Kevin Pietersen, in terms of that particular weakness, McCullum will have to make some technical adjustments to his game such as being able to pick the straight one, but the wider concern is that he is actually better suited to the middle order. Even though he averages slightly higher as an opener, 35.77 compared to 35.12, those numbers are inflated by the double-century against India. Moreover, New Zealand would want their two best batsmen, when Ross Taylor is back, in the No.3 and 4 positions, similar to what South Africa have in Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis. And if Jesse Ryder returns, that middle order will be stronger.

McCullum's style of play seemed suited to opening when he first moved there in that India series in 2010. On the evidence of recent performances, he may be better suited to the middle order, which will leave New Zealand still searching for an opener.

Martin Guptill's 48 should not be considered a redemption and although it will be used as a reason to keep him in the XI, they should still cast the net wider as they search for other options. Guptill has only scored a half-century once in his last ten Test innings and his problem of nicking off has not been solved. He also struggles against swing, which leaves him fending balls awkwardly and getting edges.

Even in this innings, he started by taking his eyes off a Dale Steyn bouncer and nearly gloved it to the wicketkeeper. Guptill's drive is still impeccable and he grew in confidence as the innings wore on. The ball that dismissed him was a seaming delivery that came back in to him and it would be unfair to judge him on that alone.

Overall though, Guptill has not done his job. Kane Williamson has had 18 innings at No. 3 in Test cricket and only five times has he been able to walk to the crease with the score over 40. Acting as an opener has restricted Williamson's development as the anchor of the batting line-up, which is how New Zealand see him. Arguably New Zealand's most talented young batsman, Williamson should be better nurtured and Guptill's poor form isn't helping with that.

So where do New Zealand turn? The answer may actually lie lower down where BJ Watling has showed guts and guile. A bonus is that he is an opening batsman who has played the role in Tests before. When he made his debut against Pakistan, Watling was picked as top-two player. Now, he is the designated wicketkeeper and so he may have to give up that responsibility to face the new ball.

In New Zealand's current situation, having Watling open the batting would not be the worst call. In all three innings in which he has shown fight on this tour, Watling has been strong with the cut and drive. Today, he also showed astute decision-making skills in taking risks, especially against the best bowler of the day, Dale Steyn, who Watling did not hit for a single boundary.

He also did a fine job ushering the tail through the latter parts of the first innings. Watling allowed Trent Boult time to settle in and then trusted him to hold his own as the two put on the highest partnership of the innings.

Of the current line-up, Watling seems to have the most secure and fearless mindset and he has combined control with class. All those sounds like the qualities of an opening batmen, don't they? If only New Zealand had two of him.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ifeel on January 14, 2013, 14:43 GMT

    'New Zealand's problems start at the top' go to the bottom, swing sideways and are historical.

    NZ cricket team is the level of Zimbabwe or Bangladesh except with a heightened sense of their own ability. That they have a cricket administration that makes Pakistan Cricket Board appear a model of competence just adds to their woes. The ICC should split the Test team into two groups: Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and perhaps West Indies (sadly) and the rest.

  • bonobo on January 14, 2013, 14:02 GMT

    everyone is making glib comments about McCullum. Look at the statistics, he has scored more runs at the top of the order than in the middle order, his average as an opener is around 35, which whilst not world class, for New Zealand right now, is certainly above par. But the top 3 is the biggest weakness. There seems to very little comment about Kane Williamson batting at 3. He is a talented young player and has done particularly well against spin, but has shown his technique is not so strong against quality seam bowling, so why this obsession that he should be a top 3 player. Brownlie has looked something of the reverse, strong against pace, struggling against spin, but has always batted lower down the order. Whilst I dont think it is ideal, Taylor is clearly going to be happier in the middle order, I think NZE need to get their best players in as early as possible and prevent these collapeses. I would go 3,4,5 Taylor, Brownlie, Williamson...and I like the look of Watling as an opener

  • edgie on January 14, 2013, 13:55 GMT

    @Gagg , the problem is that of the 4 players u mentioned wer not in the squad to SA, only 2 of them are due to injury. The other two, either poor management, or poor mentoring. That already menas that there is something wrong with the strcutures in place at NZC, specailly with it's management. And when ur best batsman refuses to tour because of poor communication, then I am sorry, no team is going to be better, even when does come back in, because it does not mean it will not happen again UNLESS the structure and management are also look at.

  • dummy4fb on January 14, 2013, 13:32 GMT

    Guptill,Watling,Taylor,Williamson, Carl Cachopa,McCullum,Ryder,Brownlie,Munro,Ronchi, Southee,Bracewell,Vettori,Boult,McClenaghan,Milne,Wagner

    Out of these 18 players there is a decent XI to take on England and win a home series this summer. NZC selectors need to get it right. Taylor and Ryder must make themselves available to bring some pride back to New Zealand cricket which was absolutely pulverised in South Africa. If they refuse, them let them chase the riches of T20 cricket and stop wasting NZ fans time. Give Taylor back the captaincy, make John Buchanan the coach.

    My first XI

    Carl Cachopa Watling Taylor Brownlie Ryder McCullum Vettori Bracewell Wagner Southee Boult

  • ReubenMitchell on January 14, 2013, 12:47 GMT

    Yes NZ came to SA without some of their best players available, however all this shows is how very small the pool of talent is to choose from. As a dedicated and constantly disappointed NZ supporter, we are just not up to international class at the moment. The chaos in the selection room doesn't help either.

  • drnaveed on January 14, 2013, 12:40 GMT

    totally agree that NZ main problem starts at the top, especially the top 3 batsmen are not scoring runs .in the one dayers, the NZ commentator was constantly saying that maccullum should come at the top of the order ,instead of number 3 position. i think , early he comes , early he goes , he should come late in the innings , he has not done much at the top of the order , except for few dynamic innings in the one days , but one needs consistency , which i am afraid is lacking in the NZ players at the moment. they need someone like glenn turner............

  • CricketingStargazer on January 14, 2013, 11:37 GMT

    @Gagg That's a basic problem, but it's like England with Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff: it made a huge difference when they were there, but they were increasingly rarely and, finally, you just have to move on. It's rarely good for morale when a player feels that he is just keeping a seat warm for someone else who will be back some time and wouldn't be there if "X" were available. One issue that we heard a lot about a few months ago was the danger that as the New Zealand tour of England coincides with the IPL, that New Zealand might have to send a shadow side: is that threat still there? One basic issue though is to get the best out of the available talent. James Franklin had a period with Gloucestershire and he showed that he does have plenty of talent: why can't he do it when he puts on a black cap? Why can't New Zealand seem to play the same bowling attack two matches running? Who do so many players have problems with the New Zealand Board?

  • Sanj747 on January 14, 2013, 11:21 GMT

    McCullum is not good enough to play test cricket let alone be captain. Issues with the coach need to brought up and changes made. 3 in the hot seat - Hesson, Buchanan and McCullum and probably Littlejohn. Give me the job and I'll sort this lot out.

  • StevieS on January 14, 2013, 10:55 GMT

    Thamsanqa Tshuma you do realise New Zealand beat Sri Lanka in the last test that was also played in Sri Lanka and they were also thrashed in the test series V Australia. Sorry to burst your bubble but Sri Lanka would be in the same pool.

  • StevieS on January 14, 2013, 10:51 GMT

    I am not to warried, you have to remember our top 4 players ain't even there for various reasons. Add Taylor, Ryder, Southee and Vettori to the team and it makes a hugh difference.

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