On the eve of a not-so-happy anniversary, New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum knows a test victory over a vulnerable West Indies is the only gift he can offer.
This Saturday, the scheduled fifth day of the first test at University Oval, marks one year since McCullum was confirmed as New Zealand's 28th test skipper and the bloodletting began over the way Ross Taylor was axed.
Since then, anger has faded but New Zealand are winless from nine tests under McCullum-Mike Hesson, albeit one agonising draw against England in Auckland. Their last victory in a home test was nearly two years ago, against Zimbabwe in Napier.
Given that drought, it's slightly unnerving New Zealand are even-money favourites, but the odds are so stacked in their favour on a Dunedin greentop that anything other than victory will raise more uncomfortable questions.
"It is a big series for us ... but it's a series we expect to perform well in and we know the expectation is on us to get some results after what's been a little bit of a lean period," McCullum said.
The captain was chipper and buoyant, confirming his playing 11 on test eve with Kane Williamson (fractured left thumb) ruled out as a precaution, local Aaron Redmond recalled for his first test in five years and 21-year-old legspinner Ish Sodhi to play his first home test with Doug Bracewell to carry the drinks.
Williamson was on track, McCullum said, but didn't feel right after Sunday training so will be kept on ice for Wellington next week. His absence helped Sodhi get the callup as the spin option.
But the spotlight will shine as intensely as ever on McCullum, playing his 80th test at a venue New Zealand haven't lost in five attempts. Outwardly in the University Oval's Long Room his mood matched the stunning Dunedin day, but dark thoughts have swirled as he battles a serious back injury and a lean trot of 85 runs from his past seven test innings. More low scores and a relapse of his back problem will leave the skipper a big decision over his playing future.
"It [back] is all right, a little bit stiff but it's a good opportunity to try and get some results and lead from the front captaincy-wise as well. I'm very determined to put the back aside and try and perform for my team."
His captaincy has been hailed by opponents the world over, but the importance of clever field placements and stirring team talks are far outweighed by runs for McCullum now.
Finding runs will be a pertinent question for both sets of batsmen after curator Tom Tamati unveiled a sward a lot greener than the draw bore against England in March.
If McCullum wins the toss then the world-class pair Tim Southee and Trent Boult could have a field day, with New Zealand having a clear edge in the battle of the quicks against a Tino Best-led West Indies, whose spinners Shane Shillingford and Marlon Samuels had to prove their bowling actions legal in Perth last weekend.
The tourists got some welcome sun on their backs yesterday but the pitch still offered chills down a few spines, and gloveman Denesh Ramdin admitted he was battling a heavy cold. The bulk of the squad only arrived from India on Saturday, having suffered two heavy test defeats there, and the injury absence of Chris Gayle plays further into New Zealand hands.
But should under-fire tour skipper Darren Sammy call correctly then the home batsmen won't be gifted it. The absent Williamson is the glue and Redmond needs to prove he's up to test level again, while Hamish Rutherford hasn't fired since his Dunedin debut in March and Ross Taylor missed out twice for Central Districts on return from a knee injury.
Still, it reeks of a southern ambush for the tourists. If the happy hosts can't pull this one off, then this bold new dawn of New Zealand Cricket will remain a false one for now.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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