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Cricket: Opening door of opportunity

Plunket Shield players have a chance to challenge for a back-up role as opener in the Black Caps

With the Plunket Shield starting next Sunday, it is a prime time to be an opener - there's not enormous depth in the position at test level.

Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford are presumably established until the West Indies series, injury permitting. They have an average opening partnership of 41.72 in 11 innings against England and Bangladesh. Compare that to the revered, almost mythical combination of John Wright and Bruce Edgar who averaged 31.82 runs in 56 innings from 1978 to 1986 against Australian and West Indian attacks in their pomp. On that evidence, the incumbents deserve their spots.

Still, there are question marks.

Fulton looks comfortable on relatively flat tracks (e.g. Eden Park, where he scored two centuries, and Chittagong) but struggled against the seaming ball in England (e.g. 36 runs from four innings).

By comparison, Rutherford has not passed 42 in the 10 innings since his century on debut in Dunedin. He exudes left-handed elegance in the early stages - there are shades of Justin Langer - but temptation is triumphing after he gets a start.

Martin Guptill and Tom Latham are the immediate back-ups. Guptill has an average of 26.53 opening in 45 test innings, despite dominating the position at provincial and limited overs level. Take Zimbabwe and the West Indies out of the equation and that opening average drops to 19.92.

Latham is yet to make his test debut but is seen as a contender (especially as a left-hander) if there are problems. His provincial record (average 35.95 in 30 matches) is yet to fulfil its age group promise but he has shown aptitude and hunger in the New Zealand environment when part of the one-day squad. Latham, as captain of the New Zealand A side, recently made two half centuries and averaged 35.40 in three 'test' matches against equivalent opposition from Sri Lanka and India.

Despite what the four players have achieved, a compelling season from a provincial contender could sway the selection thinking. The idea is to build a batch of openers to rival the depth in the pace bowling battery which emerged last season.

Also, the traditional intricacies of the art are often ignored in limited overs these days as players are commandeered from the middle order to up the strike rate. Leaving the swinging and seaming ball relative to the positioning of your off stump are anathema in those forms of the game. Yet in first-class matches it remains crucial for building a decent total, particularly in the first innings. Anchor your innings and you anchor your team.

One concern for selectors Mike Hesson and Edgar is the flat, homogenised nature of New Zealand wickets. Batting paradises produce runs and time at the wicket but don't build test players capable of grinding out innings by making split-second line and length judgements when the ball is moving.

There is a school of thought in New Zealand Cricket that wickets like those of Rangiora, Napier and Auckland are getting too tame.

Wellington's Basin Reserve and Hamilton's Seddon Park are perceived as a better genuine test for batsmen where sound defensive technique rather than brazen attack becomes prized.

Jeet Raval and Carl Cachopa are contenders in the second tier of opening batsmen. Raval has been on the periphery a couple of years. The 25-year-old left-hander spent last season at Central Districts, where he scored one century and averaged 44.11, but returns to Auckland this year. His six half-centuries indicate a struggle with his conversion rate.

Cachopa shone as a No3 at Central Districts but made the transition to opener for three innings against Sri Lanka A where he made 104, 38 and 26.

That might be a logical move given the test middle order of Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum looks settled for now.

Veteran 34-year-olds Aaron Redmond and Michael Papps shape as outside chances. Both produced Fulton-like returns to form last summer. Redmond made three centuries and averaged 55.35; Papps scored two tons and averaged 45. However, with younger players such as Guptill, Latham, Raval and Cachopa in the mix, their prospects appear slim.

- Herald on Sunday

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