With all due respect to Ross Taylor and his record-breaking feats, the biggest box office drawcard at Eden Park today will be sitting nearby in the New Zealand dressing room.
No player in New Zealand cricket pulls a crowd like Jesse Ryder, and his return from a 22-month hiatus in the first one-day international against West Indies in Auckland is the only angle. Even more so in the absence of celebrity West Indies opener Chris Gayle, recovering from a hamstring strain in Sydney and expected to return for next month's two Twenty20 internationals.
Even Darren Sammy, the West Indies test captain who hands over the reins to key all-rounder Dwayne Bravo today, acknowledged Ryder's recall was the biggest story in town.
The tourists, desperately in need of a pick-me-up after a 2-0 test series drubbing, will hope it's a short one as they try to compensate for the late loss of batsman Marlon Samuels (wrist), plus the absence of Gayle and power hitter Kieron Pollard (knee).
Ryder's off-field happenings could almost fill a book whilst his New Zealand cricket career is a frustratingly brief, action-packed paperback to date, with so many fans wanting to read more. Today is his 40th ODI, almost six years since his debut.
He arrives feeling fit and sounding in a positive frame of mind, always a key for Ryder. The move to Otago paid dividends and he crafted his 16th first-class century against Central Districts last weekend.
Form isn't an issue for the blockbusting left-hander and he returns under a captain who's backed him, Brendon McCullum, and alongside two mates, Taylor and Martin Guptill.
The stone's throw straight boundaries also suit Ryder who peppered them in his last ODI at Eden Park, 107 off 93 balls against Pakistan in February 2011. In his previous Auckland ODI he blazed 63 off 49 against India in 2009, so happy memories abound.
New Zealand Cricket were wringing their hands this time last year; now they're rubbing them at the thought of a winning team, having dispatched West Indies in style in the tests and adding Ryder and the equally in-form Guptill at the top.
New Zealand's top-five, with Kane Williamson, Taylor and McCullum is their strongest in recent memory, followed by the hitting power of Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi.
The West Indies pacemen offered little in the test series and are powered up by the experienced Ravi Rampaul and Bravo whose match-winning qualities are badly needed.
If Sunil Narine's mystery spin can be harnessed and the openers get a flyer, New Zealand will be eyeing up 270-plus at a venue that offers pace and bounce and is not always the batsmen's paradise it appears.
"They [Ryder and Guptill] are both proven international players but to be in form as well ... they can be pretty destructive and add our middle order to that and we're going to ask the West Indies bowlers some good questions," coach Mike Hesson said.
New Zealand's bowling attack is without Trent Boult (resting) and Tim Southee (toe), leaving Kyle Mills and Mitchell McClenaghan to be reunited with the new ball.
Hesson said his side were full of confidence after the eight-wicket win in Hamilton, but realistic that the tourists would be much improved with the white ball.
"Obviously short-form is their strength, being the current world T20 champions and being a pretty formidable one-day side."
Opener Johnson Charles and Lendl Simmons bolster the West Indies batting, which is also without Shivarine Chanderpaul. The ODI side lost 2-1 in their most recent series, in India, where Gayle suffered his injury.
Coach Ottis Gibson said New Zealand were incredibly tough to beat at home in all formats, but felt his ODI side were much better placed.
"Dwayne [Bravo] brings his own energy to the group. Sometimes what's going on in the tests drains the players and having a new figurehead with different energy and five or six different people means that we're not taking too much baggage into the one-day series," Gibson said.
New Zealand's Christmas Day training was forced indoors by the rain, before their traditional family lunch at the team hotel. Today's forecast isn't overly encouraging, with showers and a maximum of 21 degrees Celsius expected.
West Indies are ranked seventh and New Zealand eighth in ODIs, and the hosts can only reverse that with a 5-0 whitewash.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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