June 13, 2014

New Zealand's happy allrounder headache

Jimmy Neesham's performance in Jamaica means the selectors will have some head-scratching to do over him and Corey Anderson

The biggest downside to New Zealand all-rounder Jimmy Neesham's two-Test career? His second-innings dismissal for 20 against West Indies in Jamaica saw his average slip below 100. The 23-year-old now averages 99 from four innings, compared to Don Bradman's 99.94 from 80.

Neesham became one of just eight cricketers, and the first New Zealander, to score centuries in his first two Tests, with 107 in 216 minutes off 171 balls at Sabina Park. He joined a batting group that includes Australians Bill Ponsford, Doug Walters and Greg Blewett, Indians Mohammad Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly and Rohit Sharma, and West Indian Alvin Kallicharran.

Azharuddin has the distinction of scoring hundreds in his first three Tests; which Neesham could emulate, presuming he's picked for the second match of this series, starting tomorrow in Trinidad.

Neesham, an Otago allrounder, certainly knows how to pile on the pressure. First, he helped New Zealand into an imperious position on the second day of the first Test. When the innings threatened to crumble at 279 for 5 after the initial toil of Kane Williamson and Tom Latham, Neesham and BJ Watling (89) put on 201 for the sixth wicket to propel the tourists towards a commanding 508 for 7. New Zealand were able to declare for the first time in the first innings of an overseas Test since October 2008 against Bangladesh.

Second, given the way Neesham flayed spinners Sulieman Benn, and particularly Shane Shillingford, they'll feel threatened knowing he's prepared to waltz down the wicket and strike them out of the game. No wonder consideration is being given to recalling Sunil Narine for the third Test, despite the decision to rule him out of the series when he opted to stay and help Kolkata Knight Riders win the Indian Premier League. His 12 wickets at 25.66 in the 2012 series indicate he's capable of stymieing the efforts of Neesham and Co.

Most of Neesham's runs in the first Test came from genuine cricket strokes. That's commendable, given the diet of T20 cricket he's been subjected to with the IPL's Delhi Daredevils over the last couple of months. Perhaps it was fortuitous he only played three matches and scored 42 runs from 46 balls in the IPL.

Where does this leave Corey Anderson? Anderson was a revelation over the New Zealand summer, particularly in shorter forms, with the fastest ODI century, in 36 balls in Queenstown on New Year's Day. Mumbai Indians invested US$750,000 in his IPL services. His Test performances, including a century at Dhaka, have also been solid.

Yet Neesham has upped the stakes - if we're permitted to use such gambling parlance in relation to cricket these days.

There appears little between their bowling attributes, so for Neesham to make 137 not out against India in Wellington - the highest score by a No. 8 batsman on debut after sitting in his pads almost nine hours and 123 overs - and reinforce it with a century at Kingston is stupendous.

Prior to the first Test was an unfortunate time for Anderson to strain a neck muscle, because there's no room for both allrounders in the New Zealand side. This points to a potential strengthening of New Zealand's overall Test game.

Posting that many runs galvanises a fielding side by granting bowlers an extra security blanket to help focus their attack.

Two other selection issues face New Zealand ahead of the Queen's Park Oval Test, where they have played three times for three draws (twice in 1972 and once in 1985).

If there is sufficient grass on the wicket Neil Wagner will be recalled, presumably at the expense of legspinner Ish Sodhi, given offspinner Mark Craig's Man-of-the-Match debut.

Elsewhere, a decision needs to be made whether Peter Fulton has the form or technique to continue opening. The other contender, Hamish Rutherford, hasn't made a compelling case to replace him but Fulton has made just one score over 14 (61 against West Indies in Dunedin) in his last 12 Test innings after twin fifties against Bangladesh in October. The selectors' loyalty must be wavering.

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