New Zealand Tests pose huge challenge for Windies

New Zealand Tests pose huge challenge for Windies


Wednesday, December 02, 2020

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PROPERLY schooled by hosts New Zealand in the Twenty20 (T20) matches, West Indies enter the two-Test series knowing the task may be even tougher.

A source of optimism is that preparation for the Tests has been quite good. That's unlike the case for the T20 players. The latter assembled as a team just a day before the opening game, because of the need for players coming from the Indian Premier League to quarantine, in line with COVID-19 protocols.

Just two players from the T20 group — Keemo Paul and Shimron Hetmyer— are part of the Test squad. The other Test squad members had two valuable three-day and four-day warm-up games over the past two weeks against New Zealand “A”, with batsmen getting valuable time in the middle.

The form of Kraigg Brathwaite, who scored a double century in the second warm-up and Darren Bravo — a century in the first warm-up and 90-odd in the second —will have boosted morale.

If both can carry their form into the Tests, powerful New Zealand, second in the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test match rankings, may find life more difficult against eighth-ranked West Indies than was initially projected.

Much attention will be focused on Brathwaite's opening partner, the aggressive left-handed John Campbell, who will need to come good in order to retain his place going forward.

The elegant Shamarh Brooks has shown promise in his short Test career thus far, and looked the part in England in July without getting big scores. Now 32 years old, Brooks would make a world of difference to West Indies batting should he finally achieve the rich promise he showed as a teenager when he captained the likes of Bravo at Under-19 level.

Jermaine Blackwood enters the Test series knowing that his place in the team is not in question after leading the fragile West Indies batting in England. He knows he needs to focus on batting long and scoring big runs.

Vice-Captain Roston Chase's improving off-spin means he is a mainstay of this West Indies side. Batting at either five or six in the order, he must now work at getting his average to 40 and above, where his talent suggests it should be.

In short, the specialist West Indies batsmen need to click in New Zealand, if the team is to at least draw this two-match series.

West Indies can't continue to rely all the time on Captain Jason Holder and wicketkeeper Shane Dowrich, batting at seven and eight, to pull them out of fire.

It's just two Tests, so barring someone getting injured or ill, I do not expect Hetmyer to play in this series.

The classy trio of Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Jason Holder should lead the West Indies pace attack, supported by either Alzarri Joseph or Chemar Holder. The latter would be making his Test debut if he gets in. Chase will be relied on for spin.

Unless conditions are perceived to be very favourable, I don't expect Rakeem Cornwall to get into the West Indies team.

It's testament to the strength of New Zealand, who comprehensively swept India 2-0 just prior to COVID-19, that they can afford to leave out their best bowler in the recent T20 series, Lockie Ferguson —among the fastest bowlers in world cricket — from their Test match squad.

The host selectors will feel they had absolutely no reason to depart from the outstanding swing bowlers Trent Boult and Tim Southee and the intriguing, 35-year-old left-arm fast medium Neil Wagner. The latter has undermined West Indies batting in the past with a consistent bodyline tactic —short deliveries aimed at the body with a dominant leg-side field.

It's not just West Indian batsmen who have been found wanting by Wagner's short ball tactic. The best batting sides, including India, have all struggled. How our batsmen cope with the South African-born Wagner will be an especially interesting aspect of this series.

Boult, Southee and Wagner apart, West Indies will have to face the towering, fast medium Kyle Jamieson, who burst on the international scene with nine wickets and good lower-order runs in his two Tests against India in February.

Medium-paced all-rounder, Zimbabwe-born Collin de Grandhomme has been sidelined by injury which could ensure a place for the left-arm spinning all-rounder Mitchell Santner.

Word that regular wicketkeeper/batsman, the South African B J Watling, is doubtful because of injury doesn't mean much in terms of the overall strength of New Zealand, in my view. Replacement wicketkeeper Tom Blundell, who was originally scheduled to open the innings, made an unbeaten century on Test match debut against West Indies in Auckland 2017 and has done nothing wrong since. Will Young, who only recently scored a century for New Zealand “A” against West Indies, looks set to be drafted to open should Watling be withdrawn. Blundell could go lower in the order.

By any standard, the New Zealand batting, led by Captain Kane Williamson is outstanding. Consider Ross Taylor, Blundell, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, Young and possibly, yet another South African recruit, Devon Conway.

An interesting sidebar to this series is the arrangement of two first-class games for reserves from the Test squad as well as members of the T20 squad against New Zealand “A”. Cricket fans will obviously be anxious to see how Nicholas Pooran, in particular, fares, since he looks the most talented young batsman in the West Indies set-up, but has not played first-class cricket since 2014 when he was 19.

It also presents wonderful opportunities for the likes of batsmen Brandon King, Nkrumah Bonner, Fabian Allen, Kyle Mayers, Shayne Moseley, Rovman Powell, Joshua Da Silva; fast bowlers Raymon Reifer, Oshane Thoms, Romario Shepherd, Preston McSween, Jayden Seales; and the wrist spinner Hayden Walsh.

Individuals should grab their chance with both hands, for who knows when next there will be first-class cricket in the Caribbean, given COVID-19.

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