Easy tour, but tough selection battles
Three one-day practice matches in Namibia and Zimbabwe may not be international cricket's most mouth-watering prospect, but when players are returning from injury and pushing for selection in the country's only two Tests scheduled for eight months, they can be forgiven for feeling a tad nervous. Four Black Caps fit that category ahead of New Zealand's opening match tomorrow against Namibia in Windhoek.
They are big-name players, too. Jacob Oram, the premier allrounder, Daniel Vettori, the world-class spinner, Scott Styris, the regular No. 4, and, fingers crossed after a two-year absence, Shane Bond, the 150kph opening bowler. The calibre of the returning quartet means the adage "never change a winning combination" will have already received a thorough examination, even though their last Test was a convincing innings-and-38-run victory over Sri Lanka at Wellington in April.
Namibia's vast temptations, such as quad-biking the Swakopmund sand-dunes or game viewing in Etosha National Park, will be ditched with the attention squarely on the three playing days before the first Test against Zimbabwe at Harare on August 7. The victorious XI from Wellington are on the tour while the returning four men are at varying levels of fitness and form so the selection process - Vettori to replace Paul Wiseman excepted - is not simple.
Most interest centres on Bond, who last played a Test in May 2003. Despite plenty of favourable comments, the wickets have hardly flowed for Bond since he returned to the first-class stage in the latter stages of last season. However, one thing in his favour is plenty of recent bowling during the New Zealand Academy's tour of Australia.
As the selectors are likely to be just as keen as the fans to see Bond terrorising international batsmen again, he will probably replace Kyle Mills. No Test appearances would give Mills even more reason to be relieved about his sponsor's change of heart over its threat to withhold payment if he toured Zimbabwe. Oram, who would be a shoo-in for the third-seamer spot without his back injury, will challenge James Franklin and Chris Martin, but he has bowled only a handful of overs for the Academy and needs to play a full part in the warm-up matches to be considered.
Franklin made useful progress last season and offers the left-arm variation while Martin is coming off a six-wicket bag against Sri Lanka, and both deserve to retain their places. However, Oram's batting prowess is such - his Test average of 43.56 is bettered only by Hamish Marshall - that he held the No. 6 position in his last Test at Adelaide in November and should do the same against Zimbabwe.
For that to happen there is a logistical nightmare. One of the incumbents, probably Lou Vincent, who scored 224 in his last innings, would be a casualty and there would be no room for Styris. The alternative would be a top-order re-shuffle with Stephen Fleming replacing either Craig Cumming or James Marshall. Fleming is as well equipped as anyone to face the new ball and had New Zealand struck anyone other than Australia after Mark Richardson's retirement at the end of 2004, he would almost certainly still have the job.
Fleming has been primarily a No. 3 for the last three seasons, but with Hamish Marshall an instant hit there last summer, the captain seems intent on staying one place further down. But there is a recent precedent for Fleming opening when John Bracewell, the coach, has wanted to field his best batsmen. Last year in England Michael Papps was left out to allow the hit-or-miss Craig McMillan to come into the middle order. This year's case, with both Oram and Styris, is even stronger.
As New Zealand are strong favourites to win irrespective of who plays, and with Zimbabwe's return tour apparently ruled out by the New Zealand government, the decision may well come down to whether Fleming sees himself opening in the Test series in South Africa next April. However, Oram, who averages a whopping 54.60 in the Bracewell era, is a must for the top six and only when he is able to operate as a frontline bowler should slotting in an extra batsman be considered.
For a man who debuted with a century from No. 8, Styris has done an excellent job at second drop since he assumed the role in India in October 2003. The incumbent until suffering an injury in February that gave Vincent his chance, Styris is in a tight race for selection and his lack of first-class runs for Middlesex - 385 at 25.46 - might prove fatal. Styris has been in top form with the ball, but with Nathan Astle effective as a back-up medium-pacer it is of lesser importance.
New Zealand (probable) 1 Stephen Fleming (capt), 2 James Marshall, 3 Hamish Marshall, 4 Lou Vincent, 5 Nathan Astle, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 Daniel Vettori, 9 James Franklin, 10 Shane Bond, 11 Chris Martin.
Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show