By Ryan Nixon
Black Caps fans, we’ve been spoiled. Spoiled by home dominance over the past few years, as our side has seen off all comers on the way to winning the inaugural World Test Championship. It was a golden run, built on a core group of players at the peak of their powers. Yet that success shouldn’t cloud our expectations of this side. It certainly doesn’t make New Zealand infallible.
Bangladesh just proved that.
The Black Caps will likely remain a competitive test outfit for the next few seasons, but there’s a number of reasons why expectations should be tempered.
Firstly, this is a side in transition. Key members of that championship winning side have moved on (BJ Watling), been moved on (Colin de Grandhomme) or are about to move on (Ross Taylor). Kane Williamson’s nagging elbow injury is also of concern given his elite class and the stability that provides the top order. The loss of Taylor is perhaps the least concerning given his own lack of form of late, alongside the emergence of Devon Conway as a truly world class replacement and Will Young as a promising opening partner for Tom Latham. Watling and de Grandhomme though have caused some headaches. Tom Blundell was assumed as a simple like-for-like replacement for Watling, given some early promise as a makeshift opener. So far though, Blundell has failed to fire in the middle order. This has been compounded by the lack of contribution from the rest of the middle to lower order.
That’s linked to the second reason, with de Grandhomme’s absence, and the emergence of Kyle Jamieson as a fourth world-class seam bowling option creating some muddled thinking around team selection. In some regards, the group of Jamieson, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Trent Boult could be seen as detrimental to the make-up of the side. All four demand selection and in the right conditions there is no problem with them all being named. However, this test has shown the conundrum that causes. In conditions that demanded picking a specialist spinner, the Black Caps opted instead for the pace quartet, while picking the unproven all-round spinning option of Rachin Ravindra. Ravindra shows huge potential as a test all-rounder, but as yet has failed to justify his inclusion outside of a brave innings saving a draw in India. Naming him seemed like having a punt each way, knowing that a spin option was required, but lacking the conviction to pick a specialist and omit one of the seamers.
Previously de Grandhomme’s ability with bat and ball helped strengthen the middle order, with a more than handy batting average of 35 normally occupying the number 7 role, while taking wickets at 33s. He also was able to bowl lengthy, tight spells, often occupying the role of a containing spin option, or prior to Jamieson’s emergence, alongside one. For all Mitchell Santner’s failings as a test spin option, a middle order of Watling, de Grandhomme and Santner certainly has a more solid look to it than the current trio of Blundell, Ravindra and Jamieson.
There have been many shouts for Jamieson to be promoted a spot higher in the order to fill the all-rounder’s role, allowing Ajaz Patel to then be picked as a specialist spin option. In hindsight, there is no doubt that Patel should have been selected for the test at Bay Oval. However, specialist spinners, including Patel himself, just haven’t historically been warranted in New Zealand so it’s understandable why he was left out, even after his historic 10 wicket haul in Mumbai. Having Patel replace Ravindra with Jamieson batting at 7 though isn’t the solution. Jamieson might have averaged 30 with the bat in tests coming into this contest, but despite some batting pedigree earlier in his cricketing career, he sports a first-class average of 20. That’s indicative that his test return is outperforming his ability, thanks to a small sample size and a top innings of 51 not out helping skew the average. The solution for a test like this with conditions demanding a spinner, is to make the hard call around dropping one of the pace quartet, playing Patel and including Daryl Mitchell as the all-round option. Mitchell is a handy seam bowler who could be used in a holding role similar to de Grandhomme, even if he’s likely not the same wicket taking threat. What it certainly would do is bolster the batting of the middle order.
Which brings me to the final point. New Zealand were thoroughly outplayed in this test by a Bangladesh side that stuck to their plans, toiled away and simply executed better than their heavily fancied counterparts. Yet New Zealand were in a position on day one to ram home a dominant position. 139-1 was thrown away by a needless run out. 189-2 was thrown away by a soft Taylor dismissal. 227-3 was ruined by a Conway strangle. The middle order then threw away a still good position as Blundell, Ravindra, Jamieson and the tail then contributed just 36 runs. That failure to apply themselves and capitalise on the first two sessions went a long way to deciding this test match, as the pitch proved docile for batting on days two and three. Instead of making hay and turning the starts from Young, Conway and Taylor into match-winning scores, New Zealand gifted away the best batting conditions of the test and handed ascendancy to the tourists. They also didn’t perform as well with the ball as we’ve come to expect, missed a key review and lost a wicket for overstepping. Small moments can cost you in tests and they did in this one.
This side won’t suddenly return to being the cannon fodder many Black Caps fans are used to, especially if Williamson gets back to full health. A top five of Tom Latham, Will Young, Kane Williamson, Devon Conway and Henry Nicholls should serve New Zealand well for a number of seasons yet, but dips in form are natural. We’ve seen Latham and Nicholls in particular struggle of late, Nicholls’ first innings knock in this test aside.The pace bowling stocks are also good, even if Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner are getting on in age. Given the success we’ve seen from England’s James Anderson, still going strong at age 39, there’s no reason that trio couldn’t give New Zealand another three or four seasons provided they have the hunger and desire to do so and New Zealand are smart about their deployment.
It’s the middle portion of this side that will be key to any repeat World Test Championship success though. Rachin Ravindra’s development is important, but he needs to justify his inclusion with either bat or ball. Bits and pieces all-rounders may work for you in the limited overs versions of cricket, but they’re found out in the test arena. For all Ravindra’s heroics in Kanpur, he’s yet to produce an innings of any run scoring substance, or provide any damaging spells with the ball. And Tom Blundell must start to score runs to justify his place in the side as the specialist keeper, particularly batting at six.
There will be plenty of calls for change ahead of the second test, but conditions should be vastly different to those we’ve seen in Mount Maunganui. Daryl Mitchell simply must play, but otherwise I suspect we’ll likely see a settled side. Make no doubt though, the pressure is now firmly on this side to avoid a humiliating home test series defeat. In some regards, that makes the Christchurch test even more appealing.
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