It's a pitch to scratch Black Caps' spinner's itch

MARK GEENTY
Last updated 05:00 08/06/2014
Ish Sodhi
Getty Images
ISH SODHI: Excited at the prospect of having a test pitch to suit his spin bowling.

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Too flat in Bangladesh, too green or too sluggish in New Zealand.

Six tests and eight months into his international career, it is finally pitch perfect for Ish Sodhi.

The country's premier spin bowler at 21, Sodhi at last has something to work with in the Caribbean, where pace used to reign but spin is now in. New Zealand's final warmup at Montego Bay was an extreme case, where Sodhi and new chum Mark Craig got the ball to fizz and spit from the crumbling surface; Sodhi taking 5-35 in the first innings and Craig 4-8 in the second against a Jamaica selection.

Sabina Park, venue for tomorrow's first test against West Indies, won't be as volatile but spinners have prospered there all year in domestic cricket, notably the home duo Shane Shillingford and Sulieman Benn.

Sodhi is excited but trying to temper it with wise words from fellow leg-spinner Shane Warne, his one-time mentor in Melbourne last December.

"The most important advice he [Warne] gave me was about mentally approaching a tour and preparing to play test cricket; and keeping things simple if the tracks do turn is going to be a massive asset to have in these conditions," Sodhi said.

"If it does spin big, then it's easy to fall into the trap of getting over-excited and they're the emotions you have to overcome in test cricket if you're going to be successful."

With Daniel Vettori out of the frame, Sodhi debuted at Chittagong in October and in six tests has 11 wickets at 59.72. Captain Brendon McCullum has handled his star of the future with care. There was minimal bounce and turn in Bangladesh, then the pacemen took centre stage on greentops in December. Sodhi showed his tricks and memorably fooled Shillingford with a googly in Dunedin, then in Hamilton where it did actually turn, Tim Southee and Trent Boult ripped through the tourists and Sodhi was hardly required. Virat Kohli and India's batting guns took to him on the Eden Park drop-in, in February.

Now Sodhi faces the rare prospect of bowling in tandem with an off-spinner, if Craig gets the nod for his debut.

"We've got that banter and we can gauge what each other is doing and what pace is good for the wicket. It's pretty exciting to have that prospect of having someone at the other end.

"We get along really well and he [Craig] has got a good head on his shoulders. It's good to be able to bounce ideas off another spinner.

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"And [bowling coach] Shane Bond is really good with his knowledge and he puts an aggressive mindset into the spinners, in a really positive manner, which I really relate to."

New Zealand are ranked higher but are the underdogs for this three-test series, given their poor overseas record. Since their last Caribbean tour in 2012, the Black Caps have won one, lost nine and drawn two of their 12 overseas tests.

But after a dominant home summer against West Indies and India, Sodhi reflects some of the youthful exuberance among the tourists, for whom Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and McCullum carry New Zealand's hopes of a winning batting total.

"The boys are in a really good space. We came off a pretty good series against them at home. We've had quite a good run the last few test matches. It'll be different in their conditions, but we've got more than enough knowledge and a lot of skill to adapt pretty quickly. If we do so, I can't see why we can't be successful."

Emotions will be high even before a ball is bowled in Kingston. One of Jamaica's most famous residents, Chris Gayle, owns the Triple Century Sports Bar in the city and is preparing for his 100th test. He missed the December test series in New Zealand due to injury but adds to the imposing home batting lineup, which also contains Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Darren Bravo, Kieran Powell and Marlon Samuels.

"It's a pretty big occasion and will be quite a special test to be part of," Sodhi said. "They're all pretty good batsmen. Shiv scored that hundred [in Hamilton] and that was quite a challenge bowling to him. They play on spin-friendly tracks in the first-class arena and, judging by the wicket we played on, it's not easy facing spin," Sodhi said.

GAME TIME

WHAT: First test, New Zealand v West Indies
WHERE & WHEN: Sabina Park, Kingston, 3am tomorrow (live on Sky Sport 2)

TEAMS

West Indies (from): Denesh Ramdin (c), Chris Gayle, Kirk Edwards, Kraigg Brathwaite, Darren Bravo, Kieran Powell, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Marlon Samuels, Shane Shillingford, Sulieman Benn, Kemar Roach, Jerome Taylor, Shannon Gabriel.

New Zealand (from): Brendon McCullum (c), Peter Fulton, Tom Latham, Hamish Rutherford, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Corey Anderson, BJ Watling, Tim Southee, Ish Sodhi, Mark Craig, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, Jimmy Neesham

- Sunday Star Times

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