Black Caps riding high going into test series
As run machine Ross Taylor sat beside his skipper cracking jokes, Brendon McCullum basked in the glow of his proudest moment as captain.
If this was what New Zealand coach Mike Hesson foresaw when he made the big captaincy call, then the masterplan could hardly have fallen into place any better.
Now the Black Caps, with a 4-0 one-day international series win under their belts, hope to ambush India's test side on Thursday on a quick, bouncy Eden Park surface, where the red ball swings and they went within a wicket of toppling once powerful England last March.
Taylor has exhausted all the batting superlatives and Martin Crowe comparisons this summer. The only thing stopping his momentum in the next fortnight is the impending arrival of his second child, due during the second test in Wellington.
Taylor will depart the camp at any time when the call comes, handing his mate Jesse Ryder a test recall. Ryder is deemed fit to step in despite not fielding for New Zealand in Wellington on Friday after suffering a bruised thigh.
In 14 international innings in New Zealand this summer, Taylor's plundered 908 runs, iced by his back-to-back centuries and man of the match awards in Hamilton and Wellington. His 20-hour marathon for 495 runs in five test innings against West Indies was backed up in nine home ODIs where he averaged 51.62.
He'll go into the tests at a career-high world ranking of three, while his ODI ranking also moved to 10th, closely followed by the similarly dominant Kane Williamson at a career-best 11th. Their run production against prolific Indian duo Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli will be a fascinating head-to-head in the tests.
India's travelling media were fascinated by Taylor's apparent metamorphosis. They know him as an Indian Premier League entertainer who slog-sweeps into the crowd at will, like a baseballer clouting another home run. The back cut has replaced it as Taylor's biggest extravagance. Where has the slog-sweep gone, they asked?
"I played it today and got out," Taylor said of his final exuberant shot at Westpac Stadium, after he'd crafted 102 off 106 balls in New Zealand's winning total of 303-5.
"I just try to be as consistent across all three formats as possible. My routine, my mindset, keep it as simple as possible and stick to the gameplan for as long as I can. I know I can play the big shots if necessary but with the new [ODI] rules you don't need to go after the bowling as much."
McCullum labelled the ODI series victory the most satisfying of his career. His captaincy was top drawer; attacking, manoeuvring, shuffling and then going in for the kill. As he noted, it's an easy game when your two best batsmen give you truckloads of runs to play with and the bowlers can attack with confidence.
While he's humming along as skipper and the team's stocks are sky-high, McCullum's batting form still nags at him. With Ryder in the wings he knows a big score in the India tests will avert any awkwardness in the ranks, after test scores of nine, 37 and 12 since his Dunedin century. As he regularly points out, runs are the only currency New Zealand deal in.
"Yeah, you always want more runs," he responded to a surprise question about his form. "I was disappointed not to get more [on Friday]. Thankfully we've got the big dogs standing up and getting all the runs."
Coach Hesson, meanwhile, reflected on his best moment in his 18 months in charge. "This is as good as it gets from a coaching point of view."
New Zealand's test squad assembles in Auckland today with openers Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford, gloveman BJ Watling, spinner Ish Sodhi and pacemen Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Doug Bracewell joining in.
"There will definitely be some confidence within the group that we can compete with these guys. They're a very good side. But it's a different format and we've got a few new faces," Hesson said.