Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2012 and beyond: NZ’s Wright path

The naming of New Zealand’s T20 and ODI squads for the remainder of the Zimbabwe tour has raised a few eyebrows in the cricketing community, but for once it’s a good thing. With the one-off Napier test having confirmed the relative strength, or lack thereof, of the tourists, New Zealand have opted to promote some new blood to the two limited overs sides, and people are genuinely excited about their prospects. Coach John Wright and national selection manager Kim Littlejohn have begun to stamp their mark on New Zealand cricket, and it looks like they are building a strong path to future success. 

Clichéd underarm jokes aside, Kim Littlejohn, the former high performance manager of Bowls Australia, has, in conjunction with Wright, shown a leap of faith in the performances of players in domestic limited overs cricket and selected six debutants across the T20 and ODI sides to play Zimbabwe. That Littlejohn has utilised the on-the-ground knowledge of the country’s six domestic coaches in the wider selection process should not be overlooked – they are in the best position to assess developing talent and make candid assessments of the intangibles; traits such as attitude and the ability (and willingness) to learn.

Generally the same wider New Zealand squad covers all three international formats, but Wright and Littlejohn have chosen instead to look towards the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka later this year and the ODI World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in 2015 by rewarding the domestic game’s top performers. Given Wright’s hard-nosed nature and his respect for international cricket, he will still expect any side selected to win every match against a Zimbabwean outfit lacking international game breakers.

Five of the six debutants play for the New Zealand’s two top limited overs sides, Auckland and Canterbury, and have been integral in their success. The sixth, Tarun Nethula, started his career in Auckland before making a move south to Central Districts for the 2010/11 season to get more game time.

Here’s a bit more about the six new boys:

Michael Bates (Auckland – both T20 and ODI)
The 28 year old left arm quick has led Auckland’s limited overs bowling attack for the past three seasons, and topped this season’s HRV Cup T20 wicket takers list with team mate Roneel Hira. Solid at the top of the innings, Bates relishes the job of closing an innings and has developed a deadly yorker when batsmen are looking for any error in length to clear the fence.

Andrew Ellis (Canterbury – ODI)
Having played for Canterbury for the best part of a decade, Ellis has been rewarded for a solid domestic record. Not since Andrew Jones has a player played so much domestic cricket before stepping up (there are many others but Jones was a childhood hero and I need to get his name in somehow). Equally at home with bat and ball, it will be intriguing to see if Ellis can compete at international level.

Colin de Grandhomme (Auckland – T20)
The biggest hitter of a cricket ball in New Zealand, de Grandhomme could create headaches for the Zimbabweans; he was born in Harare and represented the Zimbabwe U19s. In 39 domestic T20 games he averages a shade over 20 at a powerful strike rate of 170, and muscles a boundary every four balls!

Roneel Hira (Auckland – T20)
After losing his Auckland contract this season, Hira has shown his worth to the HRV Cup champions. A limited overs specialist, Ronnie topped the T20 wickets list and is a miser with his left arm orthodox. His selection is a just reward for two stellar limited overs seasons.

Tom Latham (Canterbury – ODI)
At 19 years old, and having played less than 25 matches in all domestic formats, Latham is a pick for the future but he has solid recent form behind him. When selected, he was the top runs scorer in the Ford Trophy (50 overs) averaging 55 at close to 100. If he gets a go, he’s one to watch.

Tarun Nethula (Central Districts – ODI)
The first leggie to play for New Zealand since Brooke Walker a decade earlier, Nethula’s fortunes have moved north since he headed south from Auckland. This season’s form spinner in domestic cricket with Hira, Nethula has good accuracy for a leg spinner still learning his trade.  

Two other selections have been discussed by commentators and punters alike; Jacob Oram and Kane Williamson. Will Oram last until 2015? No, but his recent bowling form at international level, when he has been fit, and in the HRV Cup, have earned him his spot though he could no longer be considered a batting force. The bigger talking point is Kane Williamson; a player earmarked as a future captain and with the potential to sit amongst New Zealand’s batting elite. Whilst he was the most miserly bowler in the HRV Cup, does it really matter? Williamson would be better to get his head around his batting game - will limited overs pressure simply delay his ascension in the international game or cause issues with a technique that still requires work to succeed at the highest level?

Whilst the results should be one-sided, New Zealand is prone to stumbling over pebbles even if they occasionally climb great mountains. On New Zealand’s tour to Zimbabwe late last year, captain Brendan Taylor was a constant thorn in their side. In three ODIs he scored over 300 runs at quicker than a run a ball, including two centuries, and was dominant in the T20s. If Zimbabwe are to cause New Zealand any troubles, Taylor holds the key. Waller and Taibu will need to be at the very best in supporting roles if they are to post competitive totals. Young fast-medium bowler Kyle Jarvis and the spin pairing of Price and Utseya are the most likely with the ball. Even at their very best Zimbabwe will need to lift their fielding from Napier where they looked little better than club cricketers (with apologies to the weekend warriors).

NZ should whitewash Zimbabwe in both the T20s and ODIs – the test will be whether the New Zealand debutants can help continue the clinical dominance of the test side. Shorter games tend to bring teams closer together but if New Zealand can continue their ruthless resolve the class gap should be too far for Zimbabwe to overcome. A six year exile from test cricket has hampered Zimbabwe’s ability to compete at international level, and it will be some time until they are a competitive unit again.

Those who complain they shouldn’t be given test status, and aren’t worthy of international cricket,  would do well to remember the length of time it took India, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and more lately, Bangladesh, to find their feet at the elite level. A country that previously produced the talents of the Flower brothers, Streak, Olonga, Whittal and Brandes, among others, will no doubt rise again.

For New Zealand, it is great to see players blooded but Wright and Littlejohn need the courage to persevere with them - the exercise will be wasted if they are then thrown back to the domestic wilderness along similar line to youngsters Adam Milne and Daniel Flynn. Some of the players may not pull through to the South African series, but it’s a taste of international cricket and it’s important that long term depth is not sacrificed by reverting to the status quo. Others may be involved in selecting the side but largely the buck will stop with John Wright – given his success in cricket around the world and his desire to lead New Zealand forward on his terms, the future looks bright.

ODI squad: Brendon McCullum (c), Bates, Doug Bracewell, Dean Brownlie, Ellis, Martin Guptill, Latham, Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills, Nethula, Rob Nicol, Oram, Tim Southee, Williamson.

Twenty20 squad: B. McCullum (c), Bates, Bracewell, Brownlie, de Grandhomme, James Franklin, Guptill, Hira, N. McCullum, Mills, Nicol, Oram, Southee, Williamson .


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