Black Caps opening pair is anyone's guess

MARK GEENTY IN PORT ELIZABETH
Last updated 05:00 17/01/2013
Brendon McCullum
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LOOK OUT: Black Caps skipper Brendon McCullum dodges a short-pitched delivery during first test action against South Africa in Cape Town.

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The race is on to claim test opening slots against England, with Peter Fulton seemingly in the box seat, Brendon McCullum in limbo and BJ Watling ruled out of a shift up the order.

Coach Mike Hesson said addressing the top order was his first order of business ahead of the three tests against England, starting in Dunedin on March 6.

It starts with finding captain McCullum his best position in the order.

Hesson held individual debriefs yesterday with the 15-strong squad who took part in the 2-0 series drubbing by world No 1 South Africa.

"There could well be changes and there will be some first-class cricketers back in New Zealand during these next three or four games for whom there's a great opportunity," Hesson said.

"Prior to his injury, Peter Fulton was going to open the batting and with Ross [Taylor] not there, Brendon was going to move to four to give us that solidity in the middle order.

"I don't think Brendon's game suits blunting an attack, which is what we needed in this series, but he applied himself for 240 balls against a top side at the top. But I don't think that's the role that he's going to play best for this team."

Still, McCullum looked as well equipped as any New Zealand top-order player to blunt the new ball against Dale Steyn and company.

Concentration lapses against spinner Robin Peterson in three consecutive innings hurt him and the team. "We're going to be up against a high-class England attack and we have to pick our best six batsmen.

"The order they come out in, there will be a lot of debate around that," Hesson said.

Fulton has scored 504 Plunket Shield runs, averaging 72 this season, so a continuation of that will help his cause in the coming weeks as he recovers from a knee injury. If McCullum does not go in first, there are few other spots. With Taylor assured of returning to No 4, Hesson said Dean Brownlie had nailed down a slot at five or six, and Watling would remain wicketkeeper and was most likely to remain at No 6.

Jesse Ryder's potential availability adds to the complicated mix as he offers all-rounder qualities. Ryder is set to meet Hesson to discuss a potential return from an 11-month, self-imposed exile from international cricket.

That leaves Kane Williamson's No 3 slot under review.

Martin Guptill's opening position will also be under threat after a disappointing recent run.

McCullum batted at No 3 during last year's home series against South Africa. Watling looked best equipped to open as he defied the South African pacemen for long periods in averaging an excellent 42 for the series.

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However, Hesson ruled out any move for Watling.

"He's been shuffled around a lot and his performance at the top of the order against the new ball has not been as good as it has lower down.

"He's had a very good test series and we certainly don't want to tinker with that."

Watling's wicketkeeping has also impressed Hesson.

It seems likely former Australian gloveman Luke Ronchi, who became eligible for the Black Caps this week, may have to wait longer for a callup. "B J's keeping is going nicely," Hesson said.

""Luke is asking us some good questions and will be involved in the NZ XI [Twenty20] games against England and that will be a really good opportunity for us to gauge where he's at."

- Fairfax Media

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