Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sri Lanka – Take Two

Less than a month after an early exit from the ICC World T20, New Zealand will return to Sri Lanka in search of better results. With Mike Hesson settling into his new role, will his side continue the progress they started in India or will the heartbreak of defeat linger? 

With domestic cricket not yet underway, and the recent A series providing no stand-out performances, the familiarity of the two touring squads was inevitable –emerging Canterbury leg spinner Todd Astle is the one new face. Twelve of the fifteen strong limited overs squad played in the World T20, while there are only two changes in the test squad from the recent tour to India.

There will be a keen interest to see if New Zealand’s batsmen have begun to shake their woes against quality spin – since Sunil Narine tormented them in Florida to start their Caribbean tour, the New Zealand top order have had only meagre pickings against a continued salvo of spin. If they are to be successful, they need to build on the confidence gained in the second test in India and back their ability to counter-attack against the suffocating pressure of top-level spin bowling.

The ODI records of both sides in the last 12 months make for depressing reading – New Zealand have won just four from 11, including a 3-0 sweep of Zimbabwe at home, while Sri Lanka have managed just 12 victories in getting through a heavy 34 match workload. However on their home tracks, Sri Lanka is expected to prevail – a New Zealand series victory would be a fillip for a side in need of better returns.

New Zealand’s best chance may be of a drawn test series, though excusing two victories against Bangladesh, New Zealand hasn’t won a series on the sub-continent since a 2-0 victory against Sri Lanka in 1984 - Sri Lanka had only played their debut test two years earlier and hadn’t yet won a test in 11 outings. To secure any measure of success, New Zealand will again rely heavily on the runs of Taylor and McCullum. If they are to secure victory Guptill needs to convert his starts to hundreds and Kane Williamson must begin to repay the faith shown in him.

If the young pace trio of Bracewell, Southee and Boult continue their progress as a test unit, the pressure will fall on offspinner Jeetan Patel to offer strong support on the sub-continents’ turning decks. For Astle to make his test debut, New Zealand would need to show tremendous faith in James Franklin to play as an allrounder and the third seamer - given recent returns, that seems unlikely.

The usual suspects will need to step up with the ball in the limited overs arena, though the Sri Lankan tour may be an opportunity for Andy Ellis to make a play for the long-term spot of an aging Jacob Oram. With the wickets likely to offer plenty of assistance for the spinners, young left arm spinner Roneel Hira should get an extended opportunity to show his worth. With five ODIs, Adam Milne should get a decent chance to show his mettle – New Zealand hasn’t produced a lively quick since Shane Bond and many have high hopes for the young Stag.

New faces
Todd Astle: It’s not often a young man who debuts in domestic cricket as a top-order batsman gets an international call-up as a bowler. Mark Richardson and Nathan Astle have taken the reverse route, but the Canterbury leg spinner’s elevation to the international game is a rare occurrence and highlights New Zealand’s continued struggles for a worthy replacement for the aging Daniel Vettori, so long the Kiwi benchmark.

Astle made his debut in the middle-order for Canterbury against Wellington early in the 2005/6 season in a one-sided loss to a Wellington side stacked full of New Zealand internationals, past and present. His first innings failed to reach double figures, his second stopped by a first-ball duck to international aspirant Mark Gillespie. An inauspicious start, but Astle represented the red and blacks in a batting dominated role for the following five seasons, until his occasional leg breaks became his primary tool of trade.

A former New Zealand under 19 representative, Astle is a naturally talented player, who given that spinners have a long shelf life and development often comes with maturity, may yet see his best cricketing years ahead of him – the New Zealand selectors will hope his growth is just beginning.  Whilst classified as an allrounder,  in 55 first-class matches Astle averages a shade over 22 – a poor return for a young man who has spent so much time at the top of the order. His bowling average is substantially higher, his 127 wickets costing him nigh on 35.

While Astle, 26, had the second largest wicket haul in last summer’s Plunket Shield, that he was shaded by orthodox left-armer Bruce Martin shows how far he needs to come. Like Nethula, one would expect a quality leggie to run riot against a competition where many of the batsmen struggle with the turning ball – that both are yet to bowl sides out is concerning.

It is only in the last two seasons Astle has started to bowl leg spin with any regularity – his results and returns have certainly improved, though in the last Plunket Shield he still failed to secure five wickets in an innings at any stage during the season. Like Nethula, he has been picked on potential and the search for someone to take over from Vettori on a more permanent basis when either through injury or tiredness he gives the game away – that time is rapidly approaching.

Barring Nethula’s debut season in 2008/9 when he secured 29 wickets for Auckland, Astle has shaded him each season. With the bat he certainly offers more, though 2011/12 will be one he’d rather forget with the willow - 13.71 from 17 innings would be a poor return for a tailender.  Daniel Vettori has shown the way forward for a New Zealand spinner – spinning the ball is important but ability with the bat makes players a far more valuable asset to a side that so often relies on their lower order to make substantial contributions. If Astle can reignite his definite natural ability with the blade he could become a powerful asset in the New Zealand side as an allrounder, allowing them to rediscover the balance in their side that an allrounder adds. Pipe dreams maybe, but productive ones if Astle can rise to the challenge of the international game – if only he’s given the chance Nethula was denied.

Adam Milne: Though not strictly a newbie, 20 year old Central Districts quick Adam Milne has worn the black and beige on only four occasions, the last his solitary outing at the ICC World T20 against Pakistan. That he was given just one over speaks volumes about the faith his skipper has in his ability – for now, at least. After a two year hiatus, largely through injury, Milne has played twice on the sub-continent in recent months after debuting in 2010/11 against Pakistan at home. A genuine fast-bowler, a rarity for the Kiwis, Milne has shown glimpses of his ability to ruffle batsmen with his pace but he’s not likely to get a lot of help from Sri Lanka’s batting roads.

Whether Milne gets much playing time will give an insight into Mike Hesson’s long term plans for New Zealand’s limited overs unit. With a T20I and five ODI matches to start the short tour, Milne can hope to get at least a couple starts - in the 50 over format he’ll have the opportunity to build into his bowling, develop rhythm and unleash some real pace. He may be green and raw, but given in-out fields and protected from the inevitable onslaught, Milne will learn some valuable lessons – lessons that will stand him in good stead for the upcoming domestic season and any international opportunities he’s afforded. 

Notable exclusions
Daniel Vettori: The former skipper will remain at home with a chronic Achilles injury that also kept him out of New Zealand’s final match at the ICC World T20. Vettori has stated he wants to continue on through at least this season, but even if fit beyond that, Hesson and Taylor will face a difficult decision as to whether he is part of their plans. A fine servant, he will be missed on the Sri Lankan tour, as much for his lower order batting and tactical acumen as with ball in hand.

Martin Guptill: National Selection Manager, Kim Littlejohn, has again made it clear that player fatigue is a major worry – “as part of the on-going management of player workload we have decided to rest Martin Guptill for the T20 and ODI matches so he can refresh for the upcoming international commitments”. Whilst an admirable approach, New Zealand don’t have the resources to pick and choose their playing roster – experienced international-quality players, especially batsmen, should be automatic selections. Like Brendon McCullum on the Caribbean tour, Guptill will have wanted to play, and where players are keen they should be selected. Rest and rotation is better suited to international heavyweights, though at times it falls flat even with the strongest sides – ask Graham Henry. 

Doug Bracewell: After a series of below-par performances, Bracewell has been left out of the limited overs squad and will remain at home to work on technical issues in his action. He will play for Central Districts in the Plunket Shield before joining the tour for the two tests. As an integral part of New Zealand’s future, the selectors have shown the foresight they often lack in putting long-term success ahead of settling for the status quo.

Tarun Nethula: Nethula’s loss is Astle’s gain but the logic behind the change is puzzling. Littlejohn’s explanation confused the issue further - "…he would benefit from a return to regular first-class cricket where he can get some overs under his belt and stake his claim for reselection”. That notion is admirable but flawed. Nethula lost form and confidence because he toured as little more than a net bowler, even when tracks had life in them that Nethula could have looked to exploit. There is no doubt he’s not ready for international cricket, but the same argument could be levelled at his replacement. The hope is that at least Astle will be given an opportunity, or there could be two leg spinners back in domestic cricket without having bowled a test over on the New Zealand’s three most recent tours.

Damien Wright: Bowling coach Wright led a marked change in the fortunes of New Zealand’s seam unit. The three youngsters; Bracewell, Boult and Southee have all made large strides forward from the progress started by Allan Donald. In just over 12 months, Wright has helped the trio mature to a point where Chris Martin is no longer an automatic choice – though he remains part of the unit he may struggle for a start in Sri Lanka. Shane Bond looks to have the inside running for Wright’s role – whoever steps into the breach has a lot to live up to. 

Talking points
Rob Nicol: Having not played test cricket since the second test against South Africa seven months ago, Nicol’s selection in the test squad is a major change of heart from the selection panel. He was exposed against the short ball in the South African series, and his career looked to have wilted after just two tests.

But has Nicol been selected as an opener, a middle order batsmen or a part-time spinner? With Hesson yet to lay his full hand on the table, making sense of his selection policies is akin to throwing darts at a board. Nicol’s inclusion may have as much to do with the domestic season not having started and the lack of standout performances in the recent A series against India.

A long term partner for Guptill: In the past three test series’ Martin Guptill has had four different opening partners – without stability at the top, it’s hard to get an innings off on the right foot. Rob Nicol, Daniel Flynn and BJ Watling all had a crack against South Africa and the West Indies before Brendon McCullum joined “the Roadrunner” for the two tests in India. McCullum looks set to continue in the role in Sri Lanka, if only because the other options have borne no fruit – if he is to take on the role permanently then New Zealand Cricket needs to look at building a long term partner in the domestic game.

McCullum’s continued presence at the top of the order will leave Flynn, Nicol and Franklin vying for two middle order spots.

van Wyk trumps Watling: Kruger van Wyk may be diminutive in stature but he has a heart like Phar Lap, and continues to be preferred over BJ Watling. Watling looked set for a long stint in the job after repaying the selectors’ faith with a century in his first test as the side’s ‘keeper against Zimbabwe to kick off the 2011/12 home season. However, a subsequent injury gave van Wyk an opportunity and he hasn’t looked back. With Watling left out of the test squad to work on his game in the Plunket Shield, it’s the South African born ‘keepers’s role to lose. Watling may offer more potential with the bat, but his wicketkeeping is raw and test cricket isn’t decided on potential.

Chris Martin: Given that Tommy has been dropped for the final test of New Zealand’s last two test series’, it’s questionable whether he will get any game time in Sri Lanka with only three seam spots on offer. After his heroics in Bangalore, Tim Southee is a guaranteed starter for the first test, Doug Bracewell has become a test match fixture and young left armer Trent Boult continues to improve at the highest level. While Martin looks set to play in South Africa in the New Year, he is likely to be resigned to net bowling and water duties on the sub-continent.

Sadly, New Zealand cricket fans have grown accustomed to defeat – accustomed, not comfortable. That much of the discussion that once accompanied an international tour has died says as much about the continued poor performances of the national side as it does about the dimming love for cricket in this country.

Mike Hesson has a sizeable job ahead of him. The final test against India offered a glimmer of hope but the torch needs to be reignited in Sri Lanka – Hobart will only live in the memory for so long.


Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi. You can now find my blog on the Northern Districts Cricket website - it's well worth a look with the domestic summer approaching fast.  

6 comments:

  1. It's an intriguing tour, I'm particularly interested in what sort of pitches there will be in Sri Lanka, given the fact that they offered a lot more pace and bounce than would be expected in the World T20. If that trend continues New Zealand might have a chance, if not, I can't see them even drawing the series.

    I'm also looking forward to seeing a new leg-spinner on the scene, Todd Astle intrigues me more than Tarun Nethula who I've not been impressed with whenever I've seen him bowl.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Martin. I think you may be right with the wickets in the limited overs, but I'd imagine there may be two dirt boiwls for the tests - I hope I'm proven wrong.

      I'm not sure the tour selectors will be willing to take a risk with Astle at the expense of a seamer, but it would be exciting to see.

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  2. Where would you rather Williamson bat, number 3 or at 5/6? Initially my feeling was he was better off at 5, and not getting exposed to a newish ball early on. But of late he seems to have mislaid his game against the spinners, and a regular clutter of wickets around him hasn't helped. For the sake of continuity I would have him continue at three, but anyway would like to know where you stand on this issue.

    Not too thrilled about Rob Nicol's inclusion in the test side, surely McCullum and Flynn would be better options. We're in the unusual situation where there are four possible choices for the opening slots! I was really hoping we'd see a new allrounder in the ODI squad as a replacement for Oram (who doesn't look to have much left in the tank) and who can eventually take over from Franklin in the test side. Colin de Grandhomme must have been an option, and I hear Otago's James Neesham is a prospect too. Thoughts?

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  3. Hi Suhas, thanks for the comments as always.

    KSW? He should bat at 3 everytime in test matches - I think that's where his longtime future rests and the more he plays there the more comfortable he will become. Williamson's play against spinners is as much about confidence as technique, as when he's down he seems almost stuck to his crease. A decision needs to be made on McCullum and where he's going to bat - he should either open or bat in the middle order. For mine, the only other option to partner Guptill is Flynn. Whoever is chosen should be given a long go at it, come what may, and be given the chance to shine or be discarded. Giving someone a couple of tests and then swapping will solve nothing and erodes the confidence of players who are always on the edge.

    Rob Nicol's recall perplexes me a little, and I hope he has been picked as a middle order option than a opener. I would have preferred to have seen Watling remain on tour as a specialist batsman to partner Franklin in the middle order.

    I'm not sure CdG is really an allround option at ODI level and it looks like they have their hopes pinned on Andrew Ellis. Long term, there may also be the option of Todd Astle as the team's allrounder, but NZ (and most international sides)seem short of viable options in that space. Time will tell...

    In less than two weeks everything will come a little clearer - I can't wait!

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  4. "Giving someone a couple of tests and then swapping will solve nothing and erodes the confidence of players who are always on the edge."

    This statement got me thinking, as it has long been a problem for NZ sides. We play *so* many two test series these days - even the West Indies who have usually been at the same level continue to get three tests on tours reguarly - that it never seems to allow for a settled side. Invariably, NZ go into the second test of a series 1-0 down, and changes are forced out of despepration (and injuries too). By the time the next series comes along, we're back to square one, or a new combination is tried out. With truncated tours continuing to be the norm, it'll be a real challenge to maintain a long-term stable unit.

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    1. It may be time to simply bite the bullet, decide on a wider squad and stick with it. There isn't an overabundance of cricketing talent around at the moment and young players need a level on confidence.

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