New Zealand's batting problems in their test series in India add an extra zing to the Plunket Shield, which starts around the country tomorrow.

There's a tendency among the New Zealand hierarchy to downplay the value of the shield on the basis that the country's best bowlers spend little time playing in the domestic first-class competition. They're on national duty, therefore runs are more easily made.

It's not hard to find a first-class coach or two who will dispatch that idea into the nearest round filing cabinet. Even if it's true, the simple answer for the country's up-and-coming batsmen is to make runs, buckets of them. That's the currency that sticks in selectorial minds.

So with the national jury out on at least a couple of batting spots - opener and No5 - there's no time like the present for those challengers.


Add into it the context that players are striving to succeed in a competitive environment, as opposed to staged matches aimed at providing game practice.

Matches which have meaning are always more valuable, both for players and for those trying to assess the talent.

Auckland will start the shield as, if not favourites, then at least in a position to contend strongly. They won the shield, and the T20 crowns last summer but coach Mark O'Donnell banishes talk of defending titles.

"It's a different season, a different team. Maybe if we had exactly the same personnel, but we're not trying to defend anything," he said.

"We want to go out and win every game and then everything takes care of itself. If you go in with the idea of defending the title, then you're looking too far ahead."

Canterbury were second last season and coach Gary Stead knows the qualities a side needs.

"The shield is the special one to win. It's 40 days of the season, it's tough, you have to play consistently well and it's a really good gauge of where you're at," the former international said.

There's one new coach among the six associations, Rob Walter has taken over at Otago, having left the Titans of Pretoria. But he'll start with a handicap.

Three prominent players are missing. Batsman Michael Bracewell has a broken hand, offspinner Mark Craig is recovering from the left side injury which cut short his New Zealand tour of India, and pace bowler Neil Wagner is being rested.

The shield runs for five rounds, then breaks for three months during which the T20 and Ford Trophy 50-over competition are played, before returning until the end of March.

A totally unscientific poll among major association coaches suggests that, if their own team doesn't win the shield, Auckland or Central Districts are fancied. We'll see.

First round

• Starts tomorrow, 10.30am

• Auckland v Wellington, Mt Maunganui

• Canterbury v ND, Christchurch

• CD v Otago, Nelson