Peter Fulton will captain New Zealand in their West Indies tour opener early tomorrow while Tom Latham eyes a big chance to nail down a test and one-day opener's slot.
Just 10 of New Zealand's 15-man squad have landed in Jamaica's Montego Bay, their base for the first week of the tour which entails two warmup matches at Trelawny Stadium.
It means a low-key opening two-dayer against a local selection, with Fulton calling the shots in the absence of Brendon McCullum (playing in the Indian Premier League) and Kane Williamson (completing a four-day county match for Yorkshire). Others still to arrive in coming days are IPL trio Ross Taylor, Tim Southee and Corey Anderson.
Latham and fellow left-hander Hamish Rutherford - the incumbent - have the most to gain from the opening week, with coach Mike Hesson insisting the opening slots remain up for grabs in the warmup games.
Barring a horror few innings, Fulton appears to have one spot by virtue of his experience and status as one of the team's leaders.
Latham, who showed encouraging signs on test debut against India in Wellington in February, is the improver.
Two net sessions in the Jamaican heat gave him an early taste of the spin examination the Black Caps' batsmen will face.
"The practice wickets have been pretty tough to bat on; a lot of turn and it's been pretty good preparation to sort out a gameplan," he said.
"It's important to look to score. If you're just looking to defend you're going to get in trouble. The sweep is a big option of mine so I'll try to sort that out as well."
Hesson predicted last week that the Black Caps could face three spinners in the first test at Kingston on June 9: mystery offies Sunil Narine and Shane Shillingford, and towering left-arm orthodox Sulieman Benn.
The first two are familiar to the tourists after causing more carnage in New Zealand last year, and Latham won't be surprised if Narine is thrown the new ball as he was in Hamilton in December.
The left-hander took a fortnight off after a marathon season where he topped the Plunket Shield charts with 948 runs at an average of 79 for champions Canterbury - including two double-centuries. He worked with his regular batting coach Bob Carter, and Canterbury assistant Paul Wiseman, on the Merlin bowling machine.
"You can put it on offspin and have the odd one that's a leggie so that's been good preparation. It gives me a bit of confidence that I can pick it in the air so hopefully I can do the same if I get the chance in the first test.
"They're certainly very tough to play in their home conditions. The crowd gets right behind them, it's very loud and a hostile place to play.
"I'm not expecting anything different. If we can prepare and adapt as quick as possible hopefully we can start well."
And if Latham starts well, he'll be a step closer to a World Cup spot. With Jesse Ryder and New Zealand Cricket still miles apart, a one-day opener's slot beckons for the cup buildup which starts with a home series against South Africa in October.
Hesson has said Latham, Rutherford and Anton Devcich will all be looked at in the 50-over matches on the New Zealand A winter tour of the UK.
Said Latham: "It's a huge opportunity. It's going to be a huge challenge for everyone and if you put the numbers on the board, hopefully those selections come further down the track. I'd love to play in the World Cup but that's a long way off."
- The Dominion Post
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