Andrew Alderson

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

Cricket: Top shot is driving opener's downfall

Hamish Rutherford's batting average has dropped from 49.20, after his first test series, to 28.50. Photo / AP
Hamish Rutherford's batting average has dropped from 49.20, after his first test series, to 28.50. Photo / AP

Hamish Rutherford's greatest strength has become a glaring weakness.

Teams have deduced if they stack the slip cordon and pitch up often enough outside off stump to goad him into driving, Rutherford soon takes the bait.

It's a conundrum. Rutherford drives as well as anyone, particularly through the covers, but temptation inevitably triumphs. This week at Queen's Park Oval, before illness took hold in the second innings, was no exception.

The West Indies bowled 13 of the 22 deliveries at him on a good length outside off and Jerome Taylor snared him for three with a nick to the slips.

He's been dismissed seven out of 22 times in that fashion, although five have come after he's reached the 16th over.

It's a shot he might need to use sparingly if he wants to prolong his test career.

Ross Taylor's decision to put away the slog sweep in tests has paid dividends.

Rutherford scored 171 on debut against England in Dunedin, and his 158-run stand with Peter Fulton suggested New Zealand's opening woes had been solved, but his average has dropped from 49.20, after that first series, to 28.50.

The 25-year-old doesn't need to banish the drive but might consider waiting until the ball is less likely to swing and the pitch less conducive to seam. The prospect of drilling boundaries through the covers appears to be an addiction from which he'll struggle to go cold turkey.

Fulton's recent poor form has seen a recurrence of top-order difficulties. Tom Latham's arrival with three half-centuries in four innings as an opener looks to be an antidote but Rutherford's lack of form has created a chance for another domestic player to seize an opportunity. He might be given a final opportunity to shine in the final test in Barbados, fitness permitting, but replacing him for the three Pakistan tests in November will be on spec rather than through anyone else's weight of first-class runs. The Plunket Shield itinerary is yet to be announced but the earliest it generally starts is late October. A touring squad will already have been named.

The selectors could convert one of the current squad to open, like BJ Watling, Luke Ronchi, Corey Anderson or Jimmy Neesham, but that could disrupt the balance of the incumbent top order. New Zealand are better off investing in a specialist.

The intricacies of opening in tests are often ignored in limited overs with players commandeered from the middle order to up the strike rate. Traits such as leaving the swinging and seaming ball relative to the positioning of your off stump are anathema in those forms of the game where unconditional attack is encouraged. In tests those factors are critical to building a total. Anchor your innings like Latham in the first Caribbean test and you generally anchor your team.

Martin Guptill must again be considered to partner the left-handed Cantabrian. His 672 runs at 74.66 for Auckland last summer, including two centuries and four 50s, thrusts him into contention. On the downside, the right-hander's average of 26.53 opening in 45 test innings, despite dominating the position at provincial level, bode poorly.

Left-handed Michael Bracewell, Latham's former national under-19 team-mate, shapes as another contender after scoring 845 runs at 52.81 in the Plunket Shield, including four centuries. Another left-hander, Jeet Raval, is on the periphery with three centuries and an average of 40.17 for Auckland in 2013-14.

Michael Papps and Aaron Redmond, both 34-year-old right-handers, are outside chances. Last summer Papps scored two centuries and four 50s to average 64.69 for Wellington but his fitness is understood to be a concern. He last played for New Zealand against South Africa in 2007. Redmond made two centuries and three 50s to average 40.31. He cameoed against the West Indies in Dunedin so remains an option.

- Herald on Sunday

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