The decision on who will replace Mike Hesson is down to two men — unless you listen to the odd whisper floating around the traps.

There's some noise that a week or two ago, there was indeed a third figure lurking on the periphery of the discussions of the next New Zealand men's coach.

Lips were, and remain, sealed within New Zealand Cricket HQ on the selection process, suggesting it'll take a puff of white smoke to find out whether Gary Stead or Heinrich Malan has won the contest.

Whoever gets it will have big shoes to fill.

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Hesson's reign didn't start promisingly, with the Ross Taylor-Brendon McCullum captaincy shambles in 2012.

But he had won respect for his handling of the job and his players' results long before he surprisingly stepped down in June, a year before his contract was due to end.

That is a factor worth remembering in the current contest, at least in Malan's situation.

Stead, a former New Zealand batsman who played five tests in 1999, took the White Ferns to a World Cup final and has now won three Plunket Shield titles with Canterbury, in 2014, 2015 and last year.

Pretoria-born Malan had a brief first-class career before moving to New Zealand, where he's taken Central Districts to T20 and one-day finals in the past year and clinched the first-class crown this season.

He is 37, nine years younger than Stead. Both men are ambitious to press on with their coaching careers; both applied unsuccessfully for the New South Wales job earlier this year.

That shouldn't be held against them, as at that time, there was no indication Hesson was going to pull up stumps early, and anyway there's nothing wrong with a bit of ambition.

How to separate two well-regarded coaches?

Stead has worked stints with the New Zealand team in recent times, joining Hesson and his assistant Craig McMillan, Stead's former long-time Canterbury teammate, for short blocks of work.

He is seen as a black and white boss, a touch old school but clear in what he wants and expects from his players. He is thought of as a good technician who does his homework.

Malan is seen as more in the mould of a players' coach, who values inclusiveness and welcomes a range of views, and an enthusiastic figure. He is also likely in second place right now.

And here's where the age comes into play. There's a view this selection race has come too soon for Malan.

Another year of domestic experience — had Hesson gone through to complete his contracted term — would surely have helped.

That's not to say Malan might not get the job. However, Stead's head looks to be narrowly in front.

A panel of six is considering the choices, headed by chief executive David White. The only solid word on when the smoke will puff from the Nugent St chimney in Newmarket is it should be by the end of this month.