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Cricket: Left-hander may offer key to opening dilemma

Hamish Rutherford played well against England in their warm-up matches. Photo / Getty Images
Hamish Rutherford played well against England in their warm-up matches. Photo / Getty Images

A number of left-handed Plunket Shield batsmen, including potential bolter Tom Latham, are candidates to open in the first test against England at Dunedin from March 6.

Right-hander Peter Fulton remains favourite to partner incumbent Martin Guptill with captain Brendon McCullum suggesting he'll move to No5. However, competition remains fierce with the final round of four-day cricket starting Wednesday. As Guptill is a right-hander, a left-hander might help disrupt the lines bowled by a potent English pace attack.

Finding another opener is based on the presumption the middle order becomes Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, McCullum and Dean Brownlie. BJ Watling is likely to retain the gloves and bat at No7, despite increased pressure from Wellington's Luke Ronchi.

As well as Fulton, the Herald on Sunday understands the left-handed quartet of Northern Districts' Daniel Flynn, Otago's Hamish Rutherford, Canterbury's Latham and Central Districts' Jeet Raval (a long shot) are under consideration.

The four-day warm-up match in Queenstown starting February 27 will effectively be a trial for whoever is selected.

If Latham is picked, it would be a major punt by coach Mike Hesson and his selection observers. He averages 31.58 with a top score of 81 in the Plunket Shield this season. His average in 24 first-class matches is 34.05. That does not make a compelling case but Latham, still more than a month shy of his 21st birthday, has a reputation for dedication and diligence.

He was renowned as an aggressive opening batsman through the age grades (including representing New Zealand at the 2010 under-19 World Cup) but opening in a test against England would be a Neil Armstrong-like leap. Latham has yet to pass 50 in eight one-day internationals and three Twenty20 internationals but produced a solid series of T20 runs (23 not out, 22 and 64) for the New Zealand XI against England in Whangarei. Complicating matters is the fact he has not opened in any format this season. Even if Latham misses selection, it is an indication he is part of the future thinking, especially with an England tour in May.

Improved form could also put Raval in the bolter brigade. The 24-year-old averages 41 from 15 innings this season but has not turned any of his five half-centuries into tons. He averages 37.85 in a 35-match first-class career for Auckland and Central Districts.

Given Rutherford's confidence as an opener in the T20Is (58 runs at a strike rate of 153) and the New Zealand XI matches, he shapes as a more likely selection. His last three first-class innings of 90, 162 and 28, coupled with immaculate strokes in the 'V', indicate he can excel in the longest form. He averages 42.52 in 19 matches.

The alternative for Hesson is to give either Fulton or Flynn a reprieve. A theory on the domestic scene contends that, despite his 1.98m height, Fulton remains vulnerable to bounce. That may count against him with the prospect of steepling deliveries from the likes of 1.98m Steve Finn and 1.96m Stuart Broad.

However, he has scored 281 runs at 35.13 since returning from South Africa where he was due an international test recall until he injured a knee. He spent more than four hours at the wicket against Wellington for 94 and 52; made 59 and a duck prior to that against Central Districts. Against Northern Districts, he and Watling were the only players to pass 50. Fulton averages 52.33 and has made three centuries. He turned 34 this month and played the last of his 10 tests in December 2009.

After a dire South African series Flynn has made centuries against Auckland and Wellington but struggled against Otago and Canterbury as he seeks to move up the order. The 27-year-old has a couple of 45s in four opening efforts against South Africa and the West Indies.

- Herald on Sunday

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