Winners are grinners. But it may not have been that way for Mark Craig or Jimmy Neesham this week had fate not intervened in the West Indies.
That pair, and opener Tom Latham, weren't first choice selections when the Black Caps embarked on their Caribbean crusade, but by tour's end had pushed past the incumbents to play vital roles in the 2-1 series victory.
Craig was summoned to the 15-man squad only when Jeetan Patel declined the offer, while Neesham got the call at Kingston due to Corey Anderson's neck injury. Latham, with just one test to his name, suddenly became the best opener as Peter Fulton was axed and Hamish Rutherford continued to struggle. It was one of the features of New Zealand's triumph that three of the newbies stepped up.
Finding a quality all-rounder, a solid opening pair and a world-class spinner was a big issue for the Black Caps' test side. Now the former is sorted, with Neesham and Anderson, Latham has solved one half of the opening puzzle, while the spin stocks are improving in the post-Daniel Vettori era.
Craig deserves one of the 20 central contracts to be dished out this month, on the strength of his debut series. It means a tricky choice for coach Mike Hesson with Ish Sodhi their special project, a gifted legspinner but not consistent enough yet. Both will go to the United Arab Emirates for three tests against Pakistan in November, coach Mike Hesson said, with the pecking order undecided.
"We picked Mark based on the fact we played a couple of left-arm seamers and we thought an offspinner was important for us, and he bowled nicely. He contributed with the bat, and he's just growing in his skin. We've got two good young spinners and they're both a big part of our future. They're not the finished product yet, but they're guys that spin the ball hard and we think have got a lot of skill," Hesson said.
Latham will continue to England with New Zealand A, where there's nine 50-over matches and he can push for a World Cup opening spot. Who partners him in the Pakistan tests remains up in the air. Rutherford's had plenty of chances and gets another with NZA, while Michael Bracewell is the up-and-comer on the England tour. Another contender, Martin Guptill, averaged 74.7 in the Plunket Shield but is currently undergoing a six-month batting "warrant of fitness" with guru Martin Crowe, to remedy some technical flaws.
At 22, Latham was the main success story.
"I don't want to put the mocker on him. The key thing is not so much the scores but the way he did it. He's young, he's captained Canterbury and he's got leadership and plenty of game sense. He's technically very good and is able to take the situation out of the game and play the ball," Hesson said.
The same goes for Kane Williamson, the man of the series. The 23-year-old's match-turning 161 not out ticked his test average over 40, and lifted him to a career-best 14th in the world batting rankings. New Zealand have four in the top-15; Williamson and Ross Taylor (ninth) in the batting and Tim Southee (sixth) and Trent Boult (ninth) in the bowling.
Hesson believed the pace duo, and the rising Williamson, were all capable of reaching No 1.
"Tim and Trent are the highest wicket-takers away from home the last two years and we know how good they are at home. I think both of them have the attributes to be No 1.
"Kane, absolutely, he's just maturing but when you talk to him he just goes about his work and that's part of the reason why he's so successful, he doesn't think about those things."
After their fifth win from seven tests, New Zealand remain seventh on the world rankings, three points behind Sri Lanka and seven behind fifth-placed England. The most satisfying aspect of Hesson and captain Brendon McCullum's first away series win was the fightback at Bridgetown.
"For a first time in a while we haven't led a test from start to finish so the fact we were under the pump after two days and the way we fought our way back showed a heck of a lot of character. It's only the second time in history we've been behind on the first innings and won a test match."
An unchanged 15 will take on West Indies, without Gayle, in two Twenty20s in Dominica tomorrow and Monday. Neesham will open the batting with a view to a promotion in one-day cricket, while Hesson is keen to see how Sodhi performs under pressure in short-form cricket.
HOW THEY RATED
Mark Geenty rates the Black Caps from their 2-1 test series win over West Indies:
Tom Latham (288 runs at 48, HS 83)
Rating: 7. Stood up in New Zealand's most troublesome position and made it his own, after just one test. Looks a ready-made test opener and has time on his side.
Hamish Rutherford (39 runs at 9.75, HS 19)
Rating: 2. Needs to return to domestic cricket to regain confidence and tinker with technique. Hasn't looked comfortable at test level for a while, and bowlers have worked him out.
Peter Fulton (1 run at 0.5, HS 1)
Rating: 1. A rare selection blunder by Mike Hesson, after Fulton struggled through the home summer. Picked for leadership and seniority rather than form, and had to go after Kingston.
Kane Williamson (413 runs at 82.6, HS 161no; 2 wickets at 35.50, BB 1-1)
Rating: 9. His career-best, match-turning innings at Bridgetown helped clinch the series. Four of his past five centuries have led to New Zealand test wins. A batting obsessive whose numbers match Martin Crowe at the same age.
Ross Taylor (187 runs at 37.4, HS 55)
Rating: 6. Taylor looked jumpy and rarely comfortable at the crease, with a series of starts but some loose dismissals. A slide from his imperious home summer.
Brendon McCullum (87 runs at 14.50, HS 31)
Rating: 6. Struggled throughout and didn't get a pass mark with the bat, but earns points for his expert marshalling of the troops on the final day after a bold declaration. A Caribbean series win is a feather in any skipper's cap.
Jimmy Neesham (278 runs at 46.33, HS 107; 3 wickets at 37.33, BB 2-12)
Rating: 7. Has the swagger of someone who knows he belongs. Like Chris Cairns in his prime, can steal a game with the bat, and helped Williamson turn the third test with a brash half-century. A fourth seamer only.
BJ Watling (207 runs at 51.75, HS 89; 12 catches, 1 stumping)
Rating: 8. Continues to do a sterling job with little fanfare. Crucial runs at No 7 and excellent with the gloves, a key cog and one of the world's best current wicketkeeper-batsmen.
Tim Southee (11 wickets at 21.09, BB 4-19; 62 runs at 12.4, HS 21no)
Rating: 8. Excellent in unresponsive fast bowling conditions, and outstanding to Chris Gayle. Doesn't just need outswing to prosper, with the ball that darts in to the right hander and pace variations showing him to be a complete bowler.
Mark Craig (12 wickets at 40.83, BB 4-91; 128 runs at 64, HS 67)
Rating: 7. Solid debut series, going from virtual unknown to the No 1 spinner who gives it a rip. Man of the match on debut, then snared the crucial wicket of Shivnarine Chanderpaul with a gem on day five at Bridgetown. A fighter who added vital runs.
Ish Sodhi (8 wickets at 28.50, BB 4-96; 18 runs at 6, HS 14)
Rating: 6. A mixed bag; some brilliant wicket-taking deliveries and some dross. Still young and inexperienced, has all the legspinner's tricks but has to deal with batsmen coming at him.
Neil Wagner (5 wickets at 22.8, BB 4-64; 2 runs at 2, HS 2)
Rating: 7. Should have played the second test, and bowled a crucial spell in the third to restrict the West Indies' lead. Applied the pressure on the final day, too, before the second new ball.
Trent Boult (9 wickets at 35.22; BB 3-48; 21 runs at 7, HS 12)
Rating: 7. Not at his absolute best, but helped his great mate Southee clinch the decider with two quick wickets on day five. The pair remain a matchwinning duo.
Not used: Corey Anderson, Luke Ronchi.
- The Dominion Post
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