Stern test for top order as series win beckons

BIG BOOTS: Tom Latham will at No 4 in the absence of Ross Taylor.
BIG BOOTS: Tom Latham will at No 4 in the absence of Ross Taylor.

It might sound odd for a team chasing four successive test victories, against opponents winless from their past 13 overseas tests, but New Zealand are as vulnerable as any stage of the summer.

Put that largely down to the absence of expectant father Ross Taylor, whose 539 runs at an average of 134.75 have formed the backbone of New Zealand's dominant test cricket form at home.

Add in a shaky opening pair desperately seeking runs before the West Indies tour, 21-year-old debutant Tom Latham in the prime spot of No 4 and a green Basin Reserve pitch to have both sets of pacemen salivating, and an absorbing first two days beckon.

New Zealand, in the prime spot of 1-0 up in a two-match series, claim favouritism by a whisker for today's second test. A red-hot pace attack, beefed up to five-strong with in-form allrounder Jimmy Neesham replacing Ish Sodhi, and familiarity with the Basin on which they toyed with West Indies in December, gives them a head start.

India will sense a chance on the strength of their Auckland comeback, particularly if skipper MS Dhoni - who looked to be battling a heavy cold at training yesterday - can continue a golden run with his coin calling which stretched to six straight in New Zealand's gripping 40-run win at Eden Park.

Home captain Brendon McCullum admitted there could be some chinks in his top four, where Kane Williamson assumes even greater responsibility. India's pace attack, led by the swift Mohammed Shami, bowled outstandingly to skittle New Zealand for 105 in Auckland. Openers Peter Fulton (109 runs at 15.6) and Hamish Rutherford (157 at 26.7) have passed 50 once each this home summer.

"We could be [vulnerable]. We've got what we've got. Both Hamish and Pete have put some good scores on the board and they've had a few misses in the last little while. It's a tough place to bat, especially in New Zealand when we are producing wickets with a bit of grass on them. In terms of the roles they've played at times, they've been pretty effective," McCullum said.

"They're desperate for runs, they know that and we all know that and we hope they perform well. You've got to keep backing those sorts of guys."

Latham deserves his spot on domestic form but that has been as an opener, a position he will probably play tests for New Zealand by year's end. If he strides to the wicket at two for not many, a stern test of his mettle awaits.

Curator Brett Sipthorpe's pitch had its first full day of sun yesterday but still looked fresh. It's a different strip to the December test against West Indies and was last used for the Bangladesh test in 2008, which New Zealand won by an innings and 137 runs.

"It looks a little bit greener than what we had against West Indies and looks a bit harder as well. We expect a bit of pace and bounce and maybe a bit of sideways movement," McCullum said.

That should make the eyes of Tim Southee and Trent Boult light up, as long as the wind stays down and Boult can generate the swing he did in December in his matchwinning haul of 10-80.

Neesham adds bite to the bowling and batting insurance. The 23-year-old will bat at No 8, coming off his highest first-class score (147 off 135 balls for Otago against Central Districts). He averages 31 with both bat and ball from 23 first-class matches.

Legspinner Sodhi would have played if it had been South Africa or Australia, but McCullum said this was horses for courses against batsmen who attack spin. There was no suggestion of sitting on their lead.

"I always play to win, hence the selections are to play to our strengths."

India's last test victory overseas was in West Indies in June 2011. They've since lost series in England, Australia and South Africa, but went agonisingly close in Auckland after a sluggish start. If their batsmen aren't too alarmed by the pitch and their pacemen fire again, New Zealand are not yet a home run for a series victory.

New Zealand: Peter Fulton, Hamish Rutherford, Kane Williamson, Tom Latham, Brendon McCullum (captain), Corey Anderson, BJ Watling, Jimmy Neesham, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult.

India (likely): Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni, Ravi Jadeja, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami.

Umpires: Steve Davis (Australia), Richard Kettleborough (England). Third umpire: Derek Walker (NZ).

Fairfax Media