Old Guest Column

Easy series but several questions remain

Andrew McLean explains what New Zealand might have learnt after crushing Zimbabwe in the Test series

Shane Bond picked up his first ten-wicket haul but how much did he and his team-mates learn on the tour? © Getty Images
It is bewildering to think that a consistent message from New Zealanders in recent years is for the All Blacks to cut back their annual tri-series matches against Australia and South Africa - both heavyweights of world rugby - when lovers of Test cricket around the world are screaming out for genuine contests.
Like cricket, rugby struggles to have more than a handful of closely-matched teams but the quality of Test rugby is rarely compromised. In rugby, Test status is a common privilege but it does not grant the right to a showdown with the big boys. Fiji were on the wrong end of a 91-point flogging in the All Blacks' first outing this year but, mercifully, that game was a one-off. Since then, the Fijians have mixed it with their more evenly-matched Pacific-island neighbours. In cricket, however, the less-capable nations don't get off so lightly as we have seen so blatantly in recent months.
In May, it was Bangladesh being mauled by England and now Zimbabwe has conceded a two-Test series inside five days for the second time in succession. And the reason? The ICC's future tours programme, under which Zimbabwe is not due to play anyone of equal ability until they meet Bangladesh over two years from now, while everyone else drifts on in a championship with no defined World Cup-type crescendo where places are earned on up-to-date form.
The statistics will show that Brendon McCullum added a second Test century to that he scored at Dhaka last October and Shane Bond picked up his first ten-wicket haul to take his tally to 56 Test victims at a mighty impressive average of 20.80, but those facts answer few of the questions raised by the Zimbabwe-New Zealand series.
Should New Zealand have toured in the first place?
New Zealand's politicians clearly thought not, but NZC signed up to the ICC's Future Tours Programme and, as such, faced severe financial penalties if they did not go, so their hands were pretty much tied.
Was the tour worthwhile for Zimbabwe's cricketers?
Playing a team from a higher class in the off season is hardly ideal but at least the players will be paid. That said, if it is performance-based pay, Heath Streak, with a meagre five runs from four knocks, might have wished he stayed at Warwickshire. The 19-year-old Brendan Taylor's 77 in the second innings at Bulawayo - his third fifty in eight Tests - was a timely reminder of his ability. The series was the type of challenge that'll continue to be the norm for Zimbabwe while the future tours programme remains.
Was the tour worthwhile for New Zealand's cricketers?
New Zealand got to play Test cricket, something they won't do for another seven months and Bond came through without injury.
Are New Zealand's Test problems under John Bracewell's coaching closer to being solved?
The series win in Zimbabwe lifted New Zealand from seventh to fifth on the ICC Test Championship which is not to be snivelled at. Team selection though remains a concern.
Is it any clearer who New Zealand's Test openers should be?
Neither of New Zealand's two specialist openers featured in the series: Craig Cumming, the incumbent for the previous five Tests, was resigned to the warm-up games and net practice while Michael Papps was preparing for the A team's forthcoming tour to Sri Lanka. James Marshall's elevation to the team last season followed an impressive run in domestic cricket when he moved away from the opening position. Relative failure in Zimbabwe leaves his spot as the incumbent opener in doubt according to Ken Rutherford, the former captain, who had the rudest of awakenings at Test level in the West Indies in 1985. As Rutherford told The Herald on Sunday, "Marshall plays too many balls into the gully region to be an effective opener".
Lou Vincent facing the new ball could be likened to a boxer in the ring at Madison Square Gardens: just as it seems the towel will be thrown in, he's back for more and with a decent score. Vincent made 92 in the second Test but that's unlikely to carry much weight with what Rutherford told The Herald on Sunday after the second Test: "It seems staggering that we have a guy like Vincent, who scored 224 [against Sri Lanka in April 2005] in probably one of our best Test innings for the past decade, and as the season starts we put him back up to opener". Chris Cairns expressed similar sentiments in the same newspaper, likening Vincent as opener to "putting a band-aid over a gaping wound".
Is it conceivable Jacob Oram won't get a game on tour?
After missing out on Test selection as he was not considered fit enough to bowl, Oram's chances of getting a run in the tri-series, in a one-day side stacked with batting and including the allround abilities of Chris Cairns, especially against India, must be limited.
Should Test specialists like James Franklin and Chris Martin have to wait until March 9, 2006 to represent their country again?
Never. The cancellation of Zimbabwe's return tour to New Zealand, scheduled for the end of the year, is the doing of a meeting of the minds of New Zealand's political parties but moving the scheduled October Tests in South Africa to April is, you guessed it, the doing of the future tours programme. Watch this space on that one, as scheduling is fast becoming an issue in itself.

Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show