Guptill keen on being limited-overs' best
If they were asked 'Who is the best batsman in Twenty20 cricket?' the chances are that most of the partisan West Indies crowd walking through the turnstiles at the Central Broward Regional Park in Florida this weekend would respond 'Chris Gayle', especially after the bruising opener finished as the leading scorer in this season's IPL. Not far behind in the response queue might be David Warner, Virender Sehwag, Tillakaratne Dilshan or Brendon McCullum.
So it might come as a bit of a surprise when a different name appears on the scoreboard, billed as the No. 1 ranked batsman in Twenty20 internationals: New Zealand's Martin Guptill. Although he might not have the same theatrical flair as the other aforementioned openers, Guptill's Twenty20 international average of 35.81 is higher than every one of them. And he's not content with just being No. 1 in Twenty20s either.
"It's a big privilege playing for New Zealand and I'm happy to be playing for New Zealand, but I always want to push and strive for more," Guptill told ESPNcricinfo. "Over the next couple years, hopefully I can really push on and become one of the best one-day batsmen in the world."
It was in an ODI against West Indies in Auckland on January 10, 2009, when Guptill scored a century on debut in international cricket. While conditions at the grounds in Florida and the Caribbean will be vastly different, he's hoping to achieve similar success.
"The pitches here are different to what we had at home on my debut," Guptill said. "It's going to be a little bit slower and [there will be] a little more turn on the wickets. We're going to have to adapt our games pretty quickly to that."
Despite playing international cricket for just a little over three years now, Guptill, 25, is one of the more experienced players in the Twenty20 squad that has been assembled for this leg of New Zealand's tour. Only seven of the 15 players in Florida were part of the team that played here against Sri Lanka two years ago, so he feels a bit more responsibility lies with him, particularly with McCullum being rested for this part of the tour.
"I guess it [the squad's composition] does put a little bit of extra pressure on the guys who have established themselves in the side for a bit longer than the other guys. The only thing we can do is play our own games and if it comes off, it comes off. If it doesn't, then someone else has to step up."
Guptill has stepped up in a big way since being promoted to the top of the order in Twenty20s. The majority of his first 18 innings came at No. 3, where he never once crossed 50. However, his nine innings since being pushed up a spot have produced 447 runs at an average of 74.50 including four half-centuries. He mainly credits his success to staying fit, as well as having players like McCullum and captain Ross Taylor batting with him.
"I've been injury free for the most part of it. I've been out there and really enjoying it and backing my ability a whole lot more than previously. I've been lucky over the last little while to have been in some pretty good nick.
"So I've just been able to keep that consistency going and batting around guys like Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor, they really help you keep yourself on the ground. Batting with them makes it easier because they're such world class players and you can just go out there and do your own thing."
As for ODIs, the consistency is there but not the game-changing scores. Despite an average touching 40, he only has one more century - against Zimbabwe in October - in the 57 innings since that 122 not out he made on debut. Guptill wants to work on continuing to bat in those situations where he's had a habit of slipping up, and falling short of reaching three figures.
"I'm being a lot harder on myself when I get into the 70s and 80s, to really try and push on. I get out a lot in the 70s and 80s, and it's quite frustrating at times. Hopefully over the next couple of years I can really get those starts and push on and get those big scores."
Following New Zealand's previous series against South Africa that ended in March, Guptill has stayed in touch by playing county cricket for Derbyshire - he had hit three centuries and three half-centuries in his two-month stint with them, before departing for this tour. The only adjustment he's had to make is getting used to the Florida heat after a few months in the cool of England. It's something he wouldn't mind getting used to if the New Zealand players make a trip to the USA an annual occurrence, with a professional domestic Twenty20 league in the country in the offing, organised by New Zealand Cricket and the USA Cricket Association.
"It's my second time here and I'm really enjoying it. It's completely different to what we're used to back home, and it's just a great place to visit and play cricket. The guys have been talking about [the USA Twenty20 league] a little bit. If it goes ahead, it'll be a good tournament and a lot of fun."
But playing in Florida is not just about spreading cricket in an emerging market for this New Zealand side. These matches are valuable preparation in the buildup to the World Twenty20 in September.
"We want to win every game before the World Cup," Guptill said. "We know that's easier said than done, but if we can just go out and play our own brand of cricket over the next few months leading up to the World Cup, then I think we're going be in a great space to go out there and compete really well in that tournament."
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey