Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Cricket: NZ must look for that special someone in test

Kane Williamson scored 77 in the second test. Photo / Getty Images
Kane Williamson scored 77 in the second test. Photo / Getty Images

If New Zealand Cricket are serious about improving their test status and results, a key factor is surely selecting more test specialists in a team aimed exclusively at the game's longest form.

The current series against South Africa has provided a strong indication of how the rest of the world is coping with the problem of playing across tests, one day internationals and Twenty20 matches.

The Proteas brought 23 players on tour. Five of them - Mark Boucher, Alviro Peterson, Vernon Philander, Jacques Rudolph and Imran Tahir - were picked solely for tests. Faf du Plessis, Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and Dale Steyn also featured in one-dayers but not the T20s while Colin Ingram, Richard Levi and Justin Theron were solely for the T20s.

Likewise, Australia have split their squads over the past couple of years. Just two of the 14-strong T20 squad against India (Shaun Marsh and David Warner) were test incumbents.

The success of players like Rudolph, Philander and Boucher and now Petersen in the test series was notable, du Plessis and Levi also performed well in the shorter forms.

It is a selection strategy New Zealand could well adopt if they are to improve the aspect that has let them down so much in this series against South Africa - their batting.

The bowlers, notably first-class veterans Chris Martin and Mark Gillespie, have excelled in restricting South Africa to first innings totals of 238 and 253 in the first two tests. However, before the third test, the batsmen had failed to ignite beyond a back-to-the-wall Kane Williamson 77 in Hamilton and a Brendon McCullum half century in each test (58 and 61). The South Africans made three centuries and five half-centuries over the same two tests.

It is important to reiterate New Zealand are facing arguably the world's finest test attack but that can't fully explain a regular lack of application.

In eight tests under coach John Wright, New Zealand have exceeded 300 runs on the first innings just three times (once vs Pakistan, twice vs Zimbabwe). In the three test losses during that period, New Zealand have never gone beyond the fourth day. McCullum made the country's last second innings century with 225 against India at Hyderabad in November 2010. A tendency to crumble endures.

On the domestic front, a 76-day gap between four-day matches from December 3 until February 17 has not helped. December and January remain the key revenue-earning periods for NZC through limited overs matches but the Plunket Shield is the country's test cricket nursery. Having the country's top players going for weeks without first-class matches presents a problem.

Many have come from an almost complete diet of T20 and one-dayers into the test series with South Africa. The three-day test vs Zimbabwe and (for a handful) the three-day New Zealand XI match in Gisborne hardly made for adequate preparation. Rhetoric about wanting a better test team may be impossible to action if four-day cricket merely bookends the season.

Overseas examples reinforce why focusing on the shorter form damages the test game. India was No 1 in tests but their recent form has been woeful, losing to Australia 4-0 (and England 4-0 last year). It is surely no coincidence this coincided with their World Cup win and the obsession with the Indian Premier League.

In contrast, England are the best test side in the world. England have always had a strong first-class competition relative to other countries but these days they would take some beating. Last English season, the maximum gap between four-day matches was 17 days. Generally it was two or three days. That discipline of turning up day-in, day-out over a mixture of formats has paid dividends at the longer and shorter ends of the play scale because England are also T20 world champions. NZC could do worse than emulate that structure.

NUMEROUS EXAMPLES have surfaced this summer to suggest New Zealand test players might benefit from consuming a diet of more first-class cricket rather than shorter forms.

Daniel Vettori has led the way solely as a test player; he has 13 tests scheduled for New Zealand over the next 12 months. Arguments can be made for Gillespie, Martin, Doug Bracewell, B-J Watling, Kruger van Wyk, Dean Brownlie and Daniel Flynn to specialise as test players as well.

Gillespie is the prime example. He had bowled consistently in four straight Plunket Shield matches since mid-February, taking 25 wickets at 20.88. After a bold Wright selection gambit, Gillespie steamed in at Hamilton and South Africa reeled - 88 for six at one stage - to be all out for 253. Martin is another who has focused on the longer form to a point where he is now New Zealand's third leading wicket-taker with 224 at 33.27 in 67 tests.

Wright might also consider asking Bracewell to specialise in tests. He was pivotal in two New Zealand victories this summer, taking 28 wickets at 19 in six tests but has been nowhere near the same force in the shorter forms .

Tim Southee is another who might be vulnerable to slipping off his length target when he changes formats. Likewise left-armer Trent Boult is useful in the longer forms with his ability to pitch the ball full for swing.

Batsmen like McCullum, Ross Taylor, Martin Guptill and Williamson seem more capable of adapting between formats. However, there is an argument Brownlie might best stick to the longer forms. He averages 44.66 from four tests yet in four limited overs matches has never reached 20. Flynn, with three centuries in his last three first-class matches, could also prove a sound acquisition at test level in his latest reincarnation. In addition, Watling and Van Wyk are candidates for the test wicketkeeper-batsman role if McCullum continues to keep in the shorter forms.

Encouraging test specialists could also help address the perennial problem of player workloads. For many there will be almost non-stop touring until next February after the South African series. April-May's IPL is followed by tours to the West Indies, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa before New Zealand returns home to play England. It might add to the expense bill but players could stay more refreshed.

Possible formations

All formats (4): Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Ross Taylor, Kane Williamson, Jesse Ryder (if in form).

Test specialists (12): Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Dean Brownlie, Daniel Flynn, Mark Gillespie, Chris Martin, Tarun Nethula, Tim Southee, Kruger van Wyk, Daniel Vettori, B-J Watling, Sam Wells.

Limited overs specialists (11): Michael Bates, Colin de Grandhomme, Andrew Ellis, Roneel Hira, James Franklin, Tom Latham, Kyle Mills, Nathan McCullum, Andy McKay, Rob Nicol, Jacob Oram.

- Herald on Sunday

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