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Daniel Vettori says his chances of playing the three-test series against England remain slim, with the return tour in May-June a more realistic goal.
And New Zealand's top strike bowler Tim Southee is an unconfirmed starter against England as he makes a measured recovery from thumb surgery.
Vettori, New Zealand's second-highest test wicket-taker, is sidelined by an Achilles tendon strain and won't be back on the field until March at the earliest. That rules him out of any Plunket Shield cricket, and the chance to prove his fitness in longer format cricket for the first test, starting in Dunedin on March 6.
"I'm hoping to be available for selection for Northern Districts' one-day campaign [starting on February 28], and then whatever happens from there happens. I won't be able to play any four-day cricket, so the test matches against England may be a stretch for me," Vettori said yesterday.
A New Zealand Cricket spokeswoman said medical advice was that Vettori was progressing well and he would be reassessed in two to three weeks with a view to playing again in March.
"That [tour of England] is probably a more realistic goal, but Achilles are funny things, they come and go with the pain and I need to prove to not only the selectors, but myself, that I can manage back-to-back days of cricket. That's the plan, but I'll just see how I go."
Vettori, who has 360 wickets from 112 tests, played his most recent five-dayer back in July, against the West Indies in Antigua.
New Zealand have played their last seven tests without him, for six defeats and a win in Colombo in November.
Vettori has battled an ongoing Achilles problem for about a year, and also suffered a hernia in that time. Vettori is in the midst of a four-month rehabilitation programme which he hoped was "three-quarters of the way through".
It leaves Jeetan Patel, fellow South Africa tourist Bruce Martin and possibly Todd Astle as the contenders for the test spinner's berth.
Test incumbent Patel's return to Plunket Shield cricket with Wellington has been delayed indefinitely as he comes to terms with the death of his mother.
Patel ruled himself out of tomorrow's home match against Canterbury and said in a statement: "I've decided to take some time away from the game to deal with the sudden loss of my mother early last week, and I'd appreciate the media respect our wishes of privacy for myself and my family."
Southee is definitely out of the Twenty20 series against England and is increasingly doubtful for the ODIs.
Southee ruptured a ligament in his left thumb while diving in the field at Karori Park on December 19 and had immediate surgery. He had the cast and stitches removed this month but his hand remains in a splint.
He is scheduled to re-visit the surgeon in a fortnight when a return date will be discussed.
The first ODI in Hamilton on February 17 may sneak up too soon, and the tests will become the main focus.
Southee's presence is crucial to New Zealand's chances and he was a crucial absentee in South Africa. In his last three tests, all on the subcontinent, he took 20 wickets at 14.90, including 8-120 in New Zealand's 167-run win over Sri Lanka in Colombo.
England's T20 squad arrived in Auckland last night and the captain, Stuart Broad, is scheduled to give an arrival press conference this morning. Their tour opener is against a New Zealand XI, including Ross Taylor, in Whangarei on Monday.
- The Dominion Post