June 13, 2014

A triumphant tapestry

Mark Craig's debut figures made the headlines, but other bowlers, and batsmen not named Taylor and McCullum, also contributed to New Zealand's Sabina Park victory

Few New Zealand cricketers have exceeded expectations in their first Test as much as Mark Craig did.

The Otago offspinner generated bounce and turn on a cooperative Sabina Park pitch to produce the country's best bowling figures on debut (8 for 188). He also hit a six from his maiden delivery - possibly a first.

His debut might not have been to the standard of Lawrence Rowe (214 and 100 not out) or Narendra Hirwani (16 for 136) but it certainly ranks among the outliers on the expectation-versus-reality curve.

The evidence was in the build-up - Craig took 3 for 17 from nine overs in the practice two-dayer and 4 for 8 from four overs in the three-dayer - but it was downplayed as seizing on spin-friendly conditions.

Even New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said: "He [Craig] couldn't have wished for a better pitch to bowl on but still created uncertainty for the batsmen. Hopefully the wicket for the second match will play flatter to challenge him more."

By the time the first Test started Craig was the one doing the challenging.

There was also a synergy between coach, captain and bowler. "Brilliant," Brendon McCullum said about Craig's effort. "He went about his work and was never fazed. Obviously the conditions were helpful but you've still got to be able to apply pressure over a long period to get the rewards."

Craig appreciated the responsibility: "The big thing was the confidence Brendon and Mike gave me to do what I can do. Backing me was massive."

All great spinners tend to experience an epiphany. For Shane Warne, it came midway through his third Test, in Sri Lanka, when he had taken one wicket and had a bowling average of 335. With Sri Lanka needing 31 runs to win chasing 181, Warne took three wickets in 13 balls without conceding a run, to eke out victory. Daniel Vettori's moment came in his fourth Test, against Sri Lanka in Hamilton in 1997. He took nine wickets, including his first five-wicket bag in the second innings, to secure a 120-run win.

It's rare for it to come instantly. Craig joined Stephen Fleming and Mathew Sinclair as New Zealanders to be awarded Man of the Match on debut. His display also raises questions. Is Ish Sodhi the No. 1 fit spinner, given McCullum went to Craig as his first-change in both innings? Where does this leave Vettori's Test future? Craig needs to back this performance up, but selectors Hesson and Bruce Edgar should be taking a bow.

After his selection Hesson said: "Mark has had a strong Plunket Shield, taking 22 wickets and his offspinners will be valuable against their [West Indies'] left-hand-heavy top order. He's been in our sights for some time." The comments now seem prescient - at the time Craig had 43 first-class wickets at 42.88.

With Vettori's ongoing injuries, Jeetan Patel's contractual obligations to Warwickshire, and Bruce Martin's lack of consistent penetration, Sodhi was expected to inherit the crown of the country's premier Test spinner. In a New Zealand rarity across seven Tests, he hasn't played in a losing team but is yet to put in a pivotal performance. Craig showed the way, although Sodhi's lbw of Shivnarine Chanderpaul was a key wicket in the second innings as part of 3 for 42.

Craig's role was part of a triumphant tapestry. Tim Southee reinforced his claim to the bowling "spearhead" title with six wickets for 51 runs from 25.2 overs, including Chris Gayle twice caught behind.

Tom Latham exuded solidity in his second Test - and first opening - with 83 and 73. Conscientious and stable, he spent more than four hours at the crease in each innings. Latham, along with Kane Williamson, Jimmy Neesham and BJ Watling, who stepped up with fifties or better, showed there is more to New Zealand's batting than Ross Taylor and McCullum. They increased the workload for opposition intelligence.

Watling remained perhaps the most underrated performer. He conceded four byes across 129 overs and further enhanced his record as the only New Zealand wicketkeeper to take eight catches or more in three Tests. Ian Smith, Brendon McCullum and Warren Lees did it once. Watling's first innings of 89 was also pivotal in the 201-run sixth wicket stand with Neesham.

The main concern remains Peter Fulton. He prodded to 1 off 19 balls in the first innings and a lazy shot had him traipsing back for a duck off two balls in the second. Fulton is a quintessential team man but Hamish Rutherford might get a reprieve in Trinidad. Persevering with Fulton has been an admirable stance but in his last 12 Test innings - since twin fifties against Bangladesh in October - he's had one score (61) over 14. The loyalty must be wavering.

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday