More to opening than moving up for Black Caps

MARK GEENTY
Last updated 10:48 26/06/2014
Dean Brownlie
DEAN KOZANIC/Fairfax NZ
AIMING HIGHER: Dean Brownlie is reinventing himself as an opener to try to win a Black Caps recall.

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The search for a consistent Black Caps test opening pair goes on. The Dominion Post examines why it has proved so elusive and who is in the selectors' sights.

Open for business. The saloon marked "Black Caps test openers" does a steady trade with high turnover; the door squeaking and the hinges in need of oil.

Tom Latham bashed it in; Peter Fulton drained his glass and quietly departed; Hamish Rutherford is ordering his last drink and Dean Brownlie is the latest to swagger into town and knock politely.

Since the 2007 tour of South Africa, 14 batsmen have strode to the crease to start New Zealand's test innings, and that could climb to 15 in the United Arab Emirates in November if Rutherford's struggles continue. Of those, only Latham and Brendon McCullum (34.6) averaged over 30. It's a seven-year itch that still needs scratching.

Rutherford and Fulton looked to have solved the problem when they plundered England's bowlers all over University Oval and Eden Park in March 2013, but it was a false dawn. Technical issues and confidence sapped the pair to the point where after 12 tests together, Rutherford was dropped for Latham, then recalled one test later when Fulton floundered at Kingston.

Now 22-year-old Latham is the incumbent after two excellent Caribbean tests, Fulton is out the door and Rutherford could be on his last chance, starting at Bridgetown tomorrow.

The contenders should form an orderly queue. Brownlie averaged a tick under 30 from 14 tests in the middle order, the last at Leeds 13 months ago, and stated his intention last week when confirming a move from Canterbury to Northern Districts. A back foot player who handles pace well, he hopes to follow the path of Mark Richardson, who shifted up to open on a New Zealand A tour in 2000 and never looked back.

"Opening has been something I've been thinking of for about 18 months. I want to play for New Zealand and it looks like the Black Caps have positions three, four and five pretty well sewn up and I still think I have a lot to offer," Brownlie said.

His selection in the NZA squad to tour England, starting next month, suggests coach Mike Hesson agrees. Latham and Rutherford are also on that tour, as is Otago's Michael Bracewell, nephew of the former national coach who was solid at No 3 and ended the Plunket Shield season with back-to-back 150s against Auckland and Northern Districts.

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"That's why the A tours are so important, we need to identify the ones we want to spend time on," said Hesson, who believed the problem of finding a reliable test opening pair was a "worldwide thing".

Having spent time developing Latham, there was satisfaction among Hesson and fellow selector Bruce Edgar, the former test opener.

"It's the way he's gone about it. He just looks calm at the crease and his technique has stood up and he keeps making good decisions. As an opener those are the qualities you want to see."

Rutherford, though, is a different story and Hesson agreed this was a big test for the man who'd passed 50 just once in 22 knocks since his 171 on debut.

New Zealand's greatest batsman, Martin Crowe, has his theory on where it went wrong. He's long believed the obsession with biomechanics set back the country's batsmen decades.

"The focus has been on hitting the ball with efficiency and hand speed but complete ignorance of the need for footwork and body position. That is critical, you just cannot succeed without it," Crowe said.

Crowe liked what he saw in Latham, part of the new breed who realised the old ways "weren't right".

"While he's got a very upright stance which can sometimes lead you to be on your heels, he's a fine athlete and he's got a terrific appetite for the game and he's clearly a very good learner."

As for who should be next in line to partner Latham, Crowe felt there was enough talent but it was a matter of who worked hardest to identify technical deficiencies. That included young pair Bracewell and Jeet Raval, from Auckland.

Crowe wasn't convinced Brownlie should walk back into the test team just because he'd moved up the order.

"There's lots of potential out there but it depends purely and simply on what they're trying to apply to their game.

"Just by going up the order isn't going to change anything, it's what you're doing to your game to prepare for the challenge of facing the best bowlers in the world.

"For example, what Ross [Taylor] and I focused on was building a game around the best ball that can be bowled to you, the one hitting the top of off stump at pace. If you can cope with that you can cope with anything."

Crowe said New Zealand Cricket was on the right track, having identified former internationals to coach and mentor batsmen as they knew the stresses of playing international cricket. Crowe learned from watching his team-mates, and greats like Greg Chappell and Viv Richards up close.

"These days players are exposed to coaches that most likely haven't played at the top level, so you have to say, are they getting the right information? NZC are trying to fill that gap but we've missed a generation of batsmen."

OPEN SEASON

Five options to find a reliable New Zealand test opening pair (includes Plunket Shield figures from last season):

A. Status quo

Tom Latham is in for the long haul, while Peter Fulton's test career is over. If Hamish Rutherford can go big at Bridgetown he might keep the wolves from the door but on current form that looks unlikely.

B. Newcomer

Michael Bracewell (Otago) 845 runs at 52.8, 4x100, HS 155no

Jeet Raval (Auckland) 683 runs at 40.2, 3x100, HS 143

Bracewell bats No 3 for Otago and finished the Plunket Shield with back-to-back 150s against Auckland and Northern Districts. The tall left-hander has the temperament and can push his case on the NZ A winter tour of England. Raval, another left-hander, has been in the selectors' sights but hasn't dominated domestic attacks like he should.

C. Manufacture

Dean Brownlie (Canterbury) 733 runs at 40.7, 0x100, HS 98

Strong off the back foot and excelled against pace in Australia and South Africa, which is a good start for any prospective opener. If he scores runs in England will become the frontrunner.

D. Recall

Martin Guptill (Auckland) 672 runs at 74.7, 2x100, HS 185

Michael Papps (Wellington) 841 runs at 64.7, 2x100, HS 183no

Daniel Flynn (ND) 775 runs at 43.1, 2x100, HS 188

Aaron Redmond (Otago) 645 runs at 40.3, 2x100, HS 154

Guptill is the incumbent ODI opener but needs to address his technical issues, footwork and hard hands against the red ball. Papps is a new batsman and a run machine under Jamie Siddons' coaching, but the national selectors seem to have questions over his fitness. Flynn's and Redmond's time may have passed.

E. Rejig

BJ Watling shifts up, Luke Ronchi to keep wicketBrendon McCullum shifts up, new No 5 introduced

Both highly unlikely. Coach Mike Hesson rates Watling as the country's No 1 gloveman, and the batting anchor at No 7 where his numbers are superior to when he opened. McCullum's opening career is behind him, and having scored a triple century at No 5, isn't shifting.

- The Dominion Post

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