A swollen squad of 20 players was recently announced by the Black Caps’ selectors, its size providing cover for all eventualities presented by two “warm-up” Tests against England, before the big dance against India in Southampton.
An all-rounder-heavy advance party may shoulder the opener at Lord’s, plugging gaps in the batting order while awaiting the return of big-ticket players from the IPL – should that continue to its end – among them Kane Williamson, and Kyle Jamieson, who is currently living his own Brewster’s Millions moment.
The Kiwis should be fizzing. Just being invited to play at Lord’s (admittedly in lieu of the WTC Final) almost guarantees a decent performance first up, coupled with the fact that the spare parts probably won’t play again on the tour. The second Test at Edgbaston, which starts on June 10, should see the return of the Northern Knights of the round table in Williamson, Tim Southee, and Trent Boult.
While consistency of selection has been paramount to the success of Gary Stead’s side over the past two years, there is a massive elephant in room – what to do with Devon Conway? New Zealand is in an enviable – and let’s face it- unusual, position of having a player who appears to possess world-class ability akin to Williamson or Taylor, jostling with Tom Blundell for an opening spot and to a lesser extent, Henry Nicholls. The former is rebooting a role popularised by Bryan Young in the 90s, and the latter having had a profitable (but charmed) home summer, thanks in part to some generous fielding by the West Indies.
The former New Zealand Test opener, Tim McIntosh, thinks Conway’s injection into the Test side must happen now.
“[Conway is] most definitely New Zealand’s second-best batsman at the moment,” said McIntosh, who played 17 Tests between December 2008 and January 2011. “To me, he looks like he negates the swinging delivery very well and is a good player of spin. He also looks like he can adapt to difficult conditions that may well be what we encounter at Southampton.
“As a priority, I would have him slot into the top of the order in a straight swap with Tom Blundell or Henry Nicholls and open with [Tom] Latham. In the second option, he would make the side batting at No 5. His form is ominous and he deserves the opportunity in Test cricket. He also has a lot to offer in the field with a safe pair of hands and youthful energy.”
When pondering what is New Zealand’s best pace attack for early summer conditions in England, McIntosh is a fan of sticking with the tried and true who have decimated lead-footed opponents in similar home surrounds: Boult, Southee, Wagner, Jamieson. He admits he would also like to see the pace of a (now fit) Lockie Ferguson given another run in the Test flannels after his ongoing injury saga that began in Melbourne on Boxing Day 2019. “He has pace, bounce and ability to remove an established player along with cleaning up tail-enders,” he said.
White ball aficionado Mitchell Santner has been included as the squad’s main spinner, probably in line for the start ahead of domestic veteran Ajaz Patel and 20-year old newcomer, Rachin Ravindra.
Who is New Zealand’s best spinner is an oft-used conversation starter around the game. The truth is, no one knows. So infrequently is a spinner employed during a New Zealand summer (due to conditions and the sheer lack of Test cricket) that Santner inevitably gets the job on the back of his performances in the shorter games.
McIntosh concurs: “Santner has occupied this role for so long now that no one else has really had a chance to break into the side. In my view, he is not a Test spin bowler as he is not a big turner of the ball, more of a partnership bowler to tie down an end.
“He has had some success in Test cricket when the conditions suit him. Maybe his batting ability has kept him ahead of others in this role, but we should not be selecting a frontline Test spin bowler because he can bat a bit.
“There has not been a depth of high-quality first-class spin bowling options available but Ajaz Patel and Ish Sodhi would offer the Black Caps more wicket-taking abilities.
“Having said that, Santner has a wealth of experience now, has bowled against the world’s best batsmen consistently, has a pretty good change of pace and an arm ball that has been known to deceive. For this reason, he keeps his place in the Test championship final for me.”
Will India be as hardened after arriving at their travel bubble at the Travel Inn on the back of a possibly truncated and disturbed IPL? With Covid-19 infection numbers skyrocketing in India, what sort of headspace will the players be in? Does that make New Zealand odds-on to take home the rosette in the inaugural competition?
“NZ would have to be favourites to beat India having acclimatised to the Dukes ball and playing the form of Test cricket in England conditions leading up to the game,” said McIntosh, who scored one of his two Test centuries against a strong India attack in Hyderabad in 2010, a match, incidentally, in which his opening partner, Brendon McCullum, hit a second-innings double-hundred.
“Traditionally, India has struggled on England and New Zealand pitches, but they have also shown high-quality character traits, bouncing back to beat Australia in foreign conditions.”
And he believes India will still be a formidable, based on their personnel. “India has a lot of experienced Test players who will not fear the situation and will be right up for the occasion,” he said.
As Colin De Grandhomme said in a recent short interview, it will probably come down to who has “the best mindset”.
Based on an original article by Jim Birchall