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Cricket: NZ can bat out of hell and into test heaven

New Zealand batsman Kane Williamson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealand batsman Kane Williamson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

When the cricketing annals look back at the 2011-12 summer, they might rate the recent test series against South Africa as a turning point for New Zealand cricket; a door opening to a firmer era of test stability.

Such a contention will be challenged almost immediately. New Zealand makes test tours of the West Indies, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa this year. Beating Sri Lanka away in November and South Africa in December/January will be tough assignments. However, overtaking the West Indies into seventh on the world rankings and challenging India, a team beaten 4-0 by England and Australia within the last year, are realistic goals.

Some will rail against the view of a new era - after all, the New Zealand test cricketers suffered a bruising from the Proteas and a berating from the country's armchair army during the recent series, lost 1-0. But there were signs the New Zealanders were beginning to battle through batting woes which seemed to stem from the effects of a steady diet of the game's short forms.

The examination the team's batsmen were given by the South African bowlers was as searching as anything seen since the days of the West Indies attack of the 1980s and later the Australian bowling stocks spearheaded by Glenn McGrath. Such an experience cannot help but be good for batsmen - and there were signs the likes of Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Daniel Flynn and Dean Brownlie will improve with more time to work on their technique and exposure to the world's best.

There cannot be a more formidable task in cricket at present than donning layers of protective gear to face the Proteas' pace attack of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and, in the third test, Marchant de Lange. In that final match, the line of trajectory into the body awoke memories of New Zealand getting battered by the West Indies four-pronged pace attack in the 1980s. If the New Zealanders weren't facing Philander - the fastest bowler to take 50 test wickets in 115 years - then world No 1 Steyn, Morkel or de Lange were charging in, nostrils flared. It was not a time to misplace your box, or, in Ross Taylor's case, your forearm guard.

Certainly New Zealand had their share of flaky batting, like succumbing inside three days at Hamilton. The first innings of the third test was another example; each of the top six got starts but no-one progressed beyond 59. The second innings was further evidence a crumble is always lurking. New Zealand slumped to 83 for 5 within 36 overs before Williamson's rearguard ton.

In fact Williamson's 102 not out at the Basin Reserve was the gutsiest test knock by a New Zealander in years, let alone a 21-year-old in his 12th test. Kruger van Wyk and Doug Bracewell also had stout hearts when it counted to see New Zealand home, despite taking a short-of-a-length peppering.

If form permits - and they deserve patience - the top six of Guptill, Daniel Flynn, McCullum, Taylor, Williamson and Brownlie need to be cemented for now. The only issue is the order they enter. There remains a strong case for McCullum to open rather than Flynn with Williamson moving to No 3.

McCullum averages 45.13 going in first and 35.07 going in elsewhere. Flynn made his weight of domestic runs, including three centuries for Northern Districts from Nos 5 or 6. The only potential change to this line-up would be if Jesse Ryder gets his head right and make a compelling case to return, or if 19-year-old Tom Latham is pursued as a player in the longer form this early in his career.

The emphasis will shift to being able to play spin on lower and slower wickets, even if it means watching the ball off the pitch and playing off the back foot when players struggle to read deliveries out of the hand.

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On the bowling front, forcing scoreboard attendants to shuffle surnames like Smith, Petersen (at least in the last test), Amla, Kallis, de Villiers and Rudolph to the 'dismissed' column took some doing. Yet Chris Martin, Mark Gillespie and Bracewell (in the first test) ousted the visitors for 238 and 253 in the first innings before they piled on 474 runs to start in Wellington.

Trent Boult was unlucky to get the chop despite a relatively redundant test in Dunedin but, with the likes of Tim Southee, Mitchell McClenaghan and presumably Neil Wagner (if he ever sorts out his eligibility) in the wings, there is genuine competition. Maintaining a decent reserve bench will be important, too. Bowling on the sub-continent or the Caribbean will be back-breaking work for little reward with a minimum of grass and sometimes unpredictable (but generally limited) bounce. The real bowling challenge lies with the spin options. Three of New Zealand's four destinations (the West Indies, India and Sri Lanka) will be conducive to tweak. A flat series from Daniel Vettori with bat and ball has seen him cop more than his fair share of criticism - how quickly people forget his heroics of seasons past. Yet the idea New Zealand can afford to drop the 111-test veteran is ridiculous when the team constantly struggles against top opposition.

With the likelihood of a reliance on spin in forthcoming conditions, Tarun Nethula shapes as the next best option. He should be taken away as a contingency to build towards the future. The Central Districts legspinner showed pep in his three one-day internationals and his Plunket Shield record this season (26 wickets at 30.46) is effective. He faces competition from Auckland's Bruce Martin (37 wickets at 37.00), Canterbury's Todd Astle (31 wickets at 38.35) and Wellington's Jeetan Patel (24 wickets at 34.70).

Another area where there has been a saturation of competition this summer is wicketkeeper. Van Wyk has proven a more than safe bet after getting a late call-up to debut in Dunedin for the injured B-J Watling. He has looked at home since, taking eight catches and conceding just nine byes in 484 overs of cricket. His determined batting - 123 runs at 24.60 including the 100-minute, 39-run vigil which helped New Zealand draw the final test in Wellington - has placed further pressure on Watling to regain his spot when he returns from his hip injury.

Yet Watling's rise from top order provincial batsman to test gloveman against Zimbabwe was similarly stellar, given it occurred in the space of a few weeks. He scored his maiden test century, gave away just four byes and took four catches.

- Herald on Sunday

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