New captain Brendon McCullum has called for test selection consistency but competition remains fierce for four spots ahead of next month's England series:
1) An opener when McCullum shifts to No5
2) The wicketkeeping gloves given Luke Ronchi's form
3) A spin spot with Daniel Vettori not fit
4) A pace bowling place if Tim Southee is fit.
The deciding rounds of the Plunket Shield are proving a good vehicle to ease New Zealand's best first-class players into form.
Finding another opener is based on the presumption the test middle order becomes Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, McCullum and Dean Brownlie.
Canterbury's Peter Fulton leads the contenders. He has scored 94 and 52 and spent more than four hours at the wicket against Wellington; 59 and a duck prior to that against Central Districts; and against Northern Districts, he and BJ Watling were the only players to pass 50.
Fulton averages 55.64 for the competition. He turned 34 this month and played the last of his 10 tests in December 2009. He was due for an international recall in South Africa until he injured his knee.
Of the other candidates, Daniel Flynn made 166 against Auckland but struggled against Otago and Canterbury as he seeks to move up the New Zealand order from No5. The left-hander already has a couple of 45s in four previous opening efforts against South Africa and the West Indies.
CD's No3 Carl Cachopa has been arguably the competition's form batsman but promoting him to open shapes as risky against a virulent English attack. However, the 26-year-old has scored three centuries this season to average 56.54, often coming in after an early wicket. Otago's Hamish Rutherford has been selected for the T20 internationals but might be considered at test level if his last three first-class innings of 90, 162 and 28 are a gauge.
On the wicketkeeping front, BJ Watling deserves further opportunities at No7 after finishing second on the New Zealand batting averages (42) to Brownlie in South Africa. He also led ND to victory over Canterbury yesterday with 75 not out. However, the efforts of Wellington's Ronchi can't be ignored. He continues to challenge with 95 from 99 balls against Canterbury and a fourth first-class century of the summer against Auckland with 135 off 126 balls. Ronchi also leads the wicketkeeping dismissals table on 33, with the prospect of more catches to be taken in Auckland's second innings.
Auckland's Bruce Martin, Canterbury's Todd Astle and, at a stretch, Otago's Nathan McCullum are the challengers for a spin call-up with Daniel Vettori injured. Jeetan Patel's bowling (average 194) and batting (average 4.33) in the South Africa tests will struggle to earn him a reprieve.
Before the latest round, Martin's first-class average is the best of the trio (35.54 in 112 matches) with 28 wickets at 36.43 this season. He's also bowled plenty of overs since returning from a lack of game time in South Africa. Helping his cause are two first-class centuries and 18 five-wicket bags. Astle was dropped after a solid debut in the second test win against Sri Lanka and he deserves another shot.
McCullum would be a punt but he regularly competes against the best in the world (at the Indian Premier, Big Bash and Champions Leagues) albeit in shorter forms. He would not be intimidated by the prospect of playing second-ranked England and plays them in the limited overs lead-up.
Pace bowling presents another area for Plunket Shield rivalry. The New Zealand attack could not dismiss South Africa in the test series. Tim Southee should return but incumbents Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell and Neil Wagner need to show form against challenges from Mitchell McClenaghan, Mark Gillespie, Brent Arnel, Chris Martin and Ian Butler. Boult and McClenaghan sat out the most recent Plunket Shield round as they prepared for the T20 internationals against England while veterans Martin (38), Arnel (34), Gillespie (33) and Butler (31) have had their moments.
Gillespie's return to form with five for 66 in the first innings against Auckland is worth noting. Last summer, he came back into the test team as a bolter and scythed through South Africa with five and six-wicket bags in the first innings of the last two matches.
Arnel produced match figures of eight for 93 against Canterbury and has 30 wickets at 26.93 for the season.
The experience of Martin can't be ignored as the country's third best test wicket-taker but he may still bear some blame for New Zealand's inability to bowl South Africa out in Cape Town. Butler also showed first-class venom before getting a call-up to the New Zealand T20 team. He took the second 10-wicket bag of the competition after Kyle Mills. He tops the Plunket Shield wicket-taking table with 36 at 23.52.