A time to step forward

With world champions Australia simultaneously opposed by genuine contenders South Africa across the Tasman Sea and terrorism destabilising the game in a region where it is most fervently followed, the contest between West Indies and New Zealand that starts in Dunedin on Thursday appears of little relevance to world cricket.

Not to the teams involved, it isn't. Taken all together, the two Tests, two Twenty20 internationals and five ODIs are vital to the standing of a sport critically in need of a stimulus in both countries.

Last week, they swapped positions at the base of the ICC's Test rankings. West Indies leapfrogged New Zealand to No.7, their highest spot in years, but only after New Zealand's two heavy defeats in Australia demoted them to last place among the authentic Test teams, ahead of unqualified Bangladesh.

Such statistics seriously undermine the reputation and popularity of the game in two prominent, if contrasting, members of cricket's limited global base.

More so for West Indies, where the pride and passion of a region united by the one endeavour that qualified it as 'first world', has been shaken by the rapid decline from top to bottom in little more than a decade. To lose to a team now officially rated below them would be another hefty blow to the collective psyche of a public that once took world domination for granted. The disenchantment evident in waning interest would be simply intensified.

New Zealand's cricket has never attained West Indies' heights. It can boast no World Cups, no prolonged supremacy, no proliferation of stars. As the second national sport, it trails a long way behind their rugby that regularly rules the world as West Indies cricket used to. Yet, from a population of four million, they have consistently punched above their weight. They have been intense competitors, always difficult to put down, often hard to resist.

Their public has a passion for sport unsurpassed anywhere. They have produced world-class performers in several disciplines. If realistic enough not to demand that their cricketers emulate their rugby men, they certainly won't put up with the ICC's last place for long.

Strictly on recent statistical evidence, New Zealand presently hold the advantage in the coming series. They have prevailed in the last three between the teams, one in the Caribbean, two in New Zealand. They have won five of those seven Tests and not lost one. The last time West Indies beat them was at the Kensington Oval in 1996.

There has also been a significant changing of the New Zealand guard since they took the last series, at home, 2-0 just under two years ago. Stephen Fleming, the best batsman and captain in each of their three triumphant series over the West Indies, has retired as has Nathan Astle, an equally influential player. Scott Styris, who had two hundreds and an average of 97 in two Tests against West Indies, now confines himself to the shorter game. Shane Bond, a truly outstanding, but injury-prone, fast bowler has gone to the ICL and been consequently debarred, like others who took the same path, at the behest of the powerful, ruthless BCCI.

West Indies' most prominent absentee is the now retired Brian Lara but the brilliant left-hander endured rare failure in that series, dismissed in single figures four times out of five. It is the all-round talent of Lara's fellow Trinidadian, Dwayne Bravo, recovering from an ankle operation, that would be most keenly missed.

The selectors have found no other similar substitute allrounder. Darren Sammy is inexplicably out of favour, even for the later Twenty20s and ODIs, and Dwayne Smith does not qualify since he signed as a Kolpak player for Sussex. So there is a serious imbalance. Instead, two wicket-keepers have been included. Work that one out. It is the area likeliest to be decisive. In contrast, New Zealand are well served by three experienced and proven allrounders.

The captain Daniel Vettori is a left-arm spinner with 275 Test wickets and a batting average of 27 in 128 Tests while Jacob Oram a powerful left-handed batsman with an average of 37 and 60 wickets. Brendon McCullum ranks alongside Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Mark Boucher as the most dangerous wicketkeeper-batsmen around.

West Indies hold the advantage in the top order with Chris Gayle (With an average of roughly 38 in 78 Tests), Ramnaresh Sarwan (40 in 72 Tests) and the phenomenal Shivnarine Chanderpaul (43 in 112 Tests) in the top five where there is no New Zealander with more than opener Jamie How's 16 Tests or better than the gifted Ross Taylor's 36 average.

West Indies' batting has been too dependent on Chanderpaul since Lara's retirement 12 Tests ago. He has had occasional assistance from Marlon Samuels, Sarwan and Bravo but, now that Samuels has been punished and Bravo is missing, it is more important than ever for the lower order to deliver.

In the last three series, against South Africa, Sri Lanka and Australia, the last six West Indies wickets have averaged 65 runs an innings. Four times, Chanderpaul has been left not out, once last man out. The highest score from a batsman from No. 7 down is Sammy's 38 against South Africa in Port Elizabeth a year ago. No team can prosper with such fragility.

It is time for Denesh Ramdin to appreciate the critical roles of Dhoni, Boucher and McCullum batting at No.7 for India, South Africa and New Zealand respectively and for Jerome Taylor to fulfill coach John Dyson's prophecy they he will develop into a useful allrounder. With Brad Haddin's 163 for Australia against New Zealand last month, Ramdin is now the odd man out without a hundred among Test wicketkeepers. It is clear that he has the ability. Perhaps the vice-captaincy will add the necessary determination to go with it.

Taylor only needs to check the contributions with the bat from Brett Lee, Stuart Broad and Chaminda Vaas to realise the difference they make.

If Auckland's huge total in the opening match of the tour does not bode well, too much should not be read into it. Eden Park's second ground, where the match was played, has a small, club-sized outfield with a pitch that yielded over 900 runs for 12 wickets in the preceding provincial match. Taylor and Daren Powell were not in the eleven of whom Fidel Edwards, Kemar Roach and Sulieman Benn were short of match bowling. Indeed, the buildup could be more beneficial that it seems on the surface.

It gave Edwards a lengthy bowl that would get the rusty parts back in order, and convinced those players of the fight they can expect from opponents who, with the criticism still reverberating after their capitulation to neighbours and loathed rivals Australia, appreciate more than ever what their responsibility is.

Hopefully, so do West Indies.