New Zealand's test opening pair Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford will be under as much scrutiny as ever when they stride out to face India's pacemen next month.
After discussing the merits of Martin Guptill and Tom Latham, coach and chief selector Mike Hesson played the loyalty card once more in naming an unchanged squad for the two-test series starting in Auckland on February 6.
The only new addition to the group who beat West Indies 2-0 in December is batsman Jesse Ryder, who had the asterisk by his name as cover for Ross Taylor whose wife is due to give birth to their second child during the second test in Wellington. Ryder will only be considered if Taylor is absent.
"It's reward for some very good performances in recent times. It was a relatively easy squad to select," Hesson said.
It raises the likelihood of an unchanged 11 from New Zealand's eight-wicket win in Hamilton, with Neil Wagner and Doug Bracewell again fighting out 12th man duties.
Fulton could consider himself fortunate. It is less than a year since his dual Eden Park centuries against England but against West Indies he looked scratchy and struggled for scoring options.
Since his Dunedin half-century, he scored 30 runs from four test innings, then for Canterbury scored 18 and 10 against Otago in recent days.
He and Rutherford will at least get one look at the Indian attack with the New Zealand XI in their two-day warmup in Whangarei, starting on Sunday.
"He [Fulton] played really nicely in Dunedin, then had two tests where he didn't score but that's the lot of the opening batsman.
"Occasionally you can miss out.
"He's also played some very valuable innings for us," Hesson said.
There were some alternatives on the selection table. Guptill finally hit form on Saturday with 111 in the third one-day game against India after struggling for much of the summer. Latham, meanwhile, put a solid case with 93 and 52 against Otago, and scored 241 not out against Wellington in December.
Aaron Redmond and Michael Papps are prolific scorers in domestic cricket but appear to be down the queue.
"Martin was discussed along with Tom Latham who's also pressing his claims at the top of the order.
"But we're showing some faith in both Hamish and Peter. We all know what Peter did last time he was at Eden Park and Hamish showed some really good qualities in Hamilton to get us through to that win.
"It's a hard side to make at the moment," Hesson said.
Rutherford fought some demons to guide New Zealand's chase home for 122 in Hamilton, scoring 48 not out. Since his 171 on debut against England last March, Rutherford has passed 50 once in his next 16 test innings. "In first-class cricket he doesn't have that issue but in test cricket he's done the hard work and got himself out, often against spin.
"It's been a real work in progress for Hamish. The innings in Hamilton was really important for him to get through that against a high quality bowler in Sunil Narine."
Paceman Hamish Bennett was the unlucky one. The top wicket-taker in the first half of the Plunket Shield season, with 24 wickets, Bennett looked the part in dismissing the imposing Virat Kohli on Saturday.
His pace and bounce would hurry up the Indians on the green pitches New Zealand have requested but Wagner and Bracewell retained their spots despite few compelling performances in recent months.
Bracewell impressed Hesson's scouts with bat and ball for Central Districts with five wickets and 77 not out against Northern, so returns to the mix again.
Hesson said leg-spinner Ish Sodhi was almost certain to play despite the likelihood of seamer-friendly pitches. "It'd have to be very green for us not to play a spin bowler.
"He's progressing really nicely, he's confident and he's the best spin bowler in the country, and he's only 21 so he's exciting."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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