You needn’t look far when searching for flash points when England take on South Africa. From the Allan Donald and Michael Atherton confrontation in 1998, to that Test match at Centurion in 2000, to the fiercely contested series in 2003, there are always plenty of topics bubbling just beneath the surface when these two meet. By comparison confrontations between the West Indies and New Zealand are inevitably subdued, relaxed affairs, where the cricket is played in the greatest spirit of sportsmanship and you’d be hard pressed to recall a single controversial incident of note.
So while everyone else looks on and waits in expectation of Kevin Pietersen wilting under the relentless sledging that he will inevitably face from not only the tourists but the rest of the English squad and assembled Fleet Street hacks over the next month, the West Indies and New Zealand will be playing out the cricketing equivalent of an Andre Rieu concert in a two Test series. Inoffensive entertainment that will be forgotten about as soon as the as the show is over. But we bet our mums would love it all the same.
After a schedule that has seen them play in India, face a tour from Australia and then rug up for a quick sightseeing tour of England, a series against New Zealand must have been a welcome sight for the West Indians. Although they lost all of those three series (they did beat Bangladesh late last year, but we can safely dismiss that result), their performances were such that the usual rhetoric of ‘West Indian revival’ was trotted out again for about the 50th time in the past decade. Whilst we will wait and see how much substance there is to claims of West Indian cricket re-emerging as a force to be reckoned with (we are particularly curious as to how they will incorporate some of the absentee members back into their squad and whether they will actually improve things), this must be a series they would have pencilled in as a must win quite some time ago.
The concern, though, is that after such promising, albeit frustratingly sporadic, performances the West Indians will be either so punch drunk or simply worn out from their exertions over the past six months that they will meekly fold against an average, yet combative, Kiwi outfit on home soil. Such a result would inevitably send the game in the region plummeting back into the depths of despair. Home losses to the Kiwis tend to do that.
The 4-1 hammering the Windies dished out to the Kiwis in the ODI’s suggests they’re in the right frame of mind for the contest however, and the performance of Sunil Narine was especially pleasing. Its amazing how much better finger spinners can perform when they are not struck down by frostbite in the sub-Arctic conditions typically found in England these days. With the bat all the attention will be on Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Marlon Samuels as the two in-form batsman in the squad, though we’ll be hoping for more fireworks from Denesh Ramdin and Tino Best. And hopefully (or not, depending on your perspective), Kemar Roach has rediscovered where the popping crease is.
Kiwi cricket is seemingly always in a state of flux. They’re not a big enough draw to warrant full Test series against the top nations, yet they cannot hope to progress and develop the talent needed for them to consistently compete unless they play more Test cricket. The end result is that in the last calender year New Zealand played just the five Test matches. Their schedule is a bit busier this year, with eight Tests, but they are becoming frequent participants in the immensely popular two Test series formats, as most nations prefer to make room in their schedule for more attractive tourists than the unfashionable Black Caps.
To progress they need to grasp every opportunity they can, and after humbling Australia in Hobart last year, then putting up a fighting performance against the visiting South Africans, an away series win here would be the perfect conclusion to what has been a promising six months for New Zealand in Test cricket. It wouldn’t exactly be the circuit breaker they most desperately want (although a series win in the two Tests in India that follow would certainly qualify as one), but a strong performance would enable Kiwi Test cricket to go on treading water for a little while longer yet.
As for their squad, the biggest points of interest surround the form of Dean Brownlie and Kane Williamson, their two most promising batsmen. Daniel Vettori will also be the subject of some interest, with the accusation from some quarters being that most of New Zealand’s best performances of late have occurred when he was absent from the line-up. Hopefully the Kiwi top order will hang around long enough that he won’t be required to bail them out consistently this series (a forlorn hope, admittedly), and Vettori can concrete on exploiting the spin-friendly conditions instead.
The two sides are so evenly matched that it’s difficult to predict an outcome. If the pitches in Antigua and Jamaica are as low and slow as those Australia were faced with in April, Sunil Narine could run riot and prove to be the difference between the two outfits.