Black Caps look for redemption on home soil
After some cosmetic surgery on the batting line-up and a return to home comforts, New Zealand's ailing test team take their first tentative steps towards recovery today.
The patient wearing whites and a black cap was on life support after some brutal South African beatings in the New Year; 45 all out their lowest ebb in Cape Town as they tumbled to seven defeats from eight tests on the road.
Now England, the world's No 2 side fresh off a series win in India, loom for five consecutive tests starting at University Oval, the leafy ground where New Zealand are unbeaten in four visits.
It's hardly a respite from the all-conquering Proteas but after all the pain and suffering of the past year, including messy changes in coach and captain, some tangible progress from Brendon McCullum's side needs to finally be seen in the crisp Dunedin air where they stood toe to toe with South Africa a year ago.
"For us to show a competitive and fighting spirit throughout this entire series is of huge importance to cricket in this country," McCullum said. "We were competitive throughout the one-day and Twenty20 series, but if we're honest, test match cricket is where the public wants to see us show improvement. It's a huge series for us."
Perhaps emboldened by familiar surroundings in his home city, McCullum was clearly the most relaxed of his short tenure yesterday. His role has changed, too, from opener to counter-attacker at No 6 to bolster the middle order which is historically robust.
The returning Ross Taylor, Dean Brownlie, McCullum and BJ Watling - standout of the New Zealand XI win over England in Queenstown - gives the hosts some core strength.
But it leaves high risk in that regular trouble spot, a new opening partnership between debutant Hamish Rutherford and 34-year-old Peter Fulton - three years after his last test - against England matchwinners Steven Finn and James Anderson.
That pair, who didn't play in Queenstown, hold the key to the series, given New Zealand's struggles with quality fast bowling.
"It should give us an ability to score some runs later and add some better runs with the tail as well," McCullum said.
"If we can do that, then I think we've got a young bowling line-up which has the ability on the day with enough runs in the bank to really test the opposition."
Indeed if the batting can provide a 350-plus first-innings total, New Zealand are in the game.
Spearhead Tim Southee and his great mate, Trent Boult, are reunited with the new ball for the first time since Colombo in November, when they took 15 wickets between them and New Zealand stunned Sri Lanka.
They'll have to do without their third amigo, Doug Bracewell (cut foot), while Neil Wagner gets his reward for a busy performance in Queenstown.
Boult was dismayed to see a brown rather than green tinge on a pitch expected to be low and slow, and hard work for the bowlers with minimal swing. It may be a blessing for New Zealand's batsmen, though.
"As a bowler it's nice coming down here thinking the wicket's going to be green and it'll move around a bit. But by the looks it's not going to be like that," Boult said.
"The pressure has got to be built over a long period of time. We're up against some pretty classy batsmen but they're all human and pressure can get the better of anyone."
The final New Zealand bowling spot will go to either seamer Ian Butler, whose last test was in Dhaka in 2004, or spinner Bruce Martin. Spin hasn't prospered in Dunedin and Butler with his local knowledge, coming off a big summer, may be more viable.
England deserve clear favouritism, even in their most far-flung destination.
Captain Alastair Cook was in ominous form in the ODIs after three centuries in successive tests in India before Christmas.
Kevin Pietersen missed out twice in Queenstown after a month off, but class is permanent as he showed with a dominant 186 in the Mumbai test.
The Dominion Post