Monday, November 23, 2009

Cricket: Edge to first test of summer on home soil

The usual edge of anticipation which invariably accompanies the first home test of the summer was in place at University Oval yesterday.

New Zealand have played plenty of cricket overseas in the past few months but getting home is different, even if Pakistan are technically the hosts for the three-match series which starts today.

But it's a point not lost on New Zealand captain Dan Vettori.

"This is almost why you play test cricket, the first test match of the summer back home after a long overseas tour," he said yesterday. "A lot of the guys feel the same way and we want a performance to do that feeling justice."

And speaking of Vettori, his health was front and centre among topics of discussion yesterday.

He looked uncomfortable with some throwing drills on the oval yesterday. He took a blow on the right elbow at training on Sunday, and his shoulder has been giving him gyp for some time. So is he fit for the test?

"I wouldn't say fully, but I'll be fine," he said a touch coyly.

But it is a worry, given that New Zealand will have only four bowlers, with part-time medium-pacer Grant Elliott likely only to be used in a jam, as he has a dodgy knee.

New Zealand's fast-medium mix is intriguing. Vettori said yesterday the decision had been made whom to leave out, either Daryl Tuffey or Iain O'Brien, but he wanted the player to know before it became public.

That suggested O'Brien might be omitted, which would be tough considering he has been a steady performer, with 58 wickets in 17 tests, and Vettori is known to have felt he could always rely on the Wellington man.

But Tuffey has been in good form and has 66 wickets in his 22 tests, the last of which was five years ago.

Shane Bond and Chris Martin seem certainties, and a good thumbing of the record books will be needed to find when New Zealand last had a fast-medium trio with either 101 years between them (Bond, Martin and O'Brien) or 99 (Tuffey for O'Brien).

Both camps had their minds more on the batting challenges of the University Oval pitch than the bowling.

Pakistan coach Intikhab Alam is confident they have the bowlers to get 20 wickets, but "you have to be careful because if you bat first you have got to play four or five sessions".

Having confirmed talented offspinner Saeed Ajmal will start with three fast-medium bowlers, Intikhab chuckled that "I think you need seven batters on this wicket".

He knows the form in Dunedin, where bowling first is the standard order of business. That said, New Zealand chose to have first crack against the West Indies in the second test on the ground last summer, and made a respectable 365.

Vettori admitted there would be a focus on New Zealand's batting.

"We're going in with only four bowlers so they have to step up. We have to acknowledge our batting hasn't been as good as we'd like. We go in with six batters - their role is to bat; none of them have to worry about bowling."

The umpire referral system is back. Intikhab thinks it "a good idea"; Vettori is more neutral.

"I've played a long time with no referral system and have no issues with it. I've seen it work well and I've seen it work badly. Hopefully we can get it to where it becomes an instrument or get rid of the bad decisions and nothing more."

Vettori reckoned the New Zealand squad was "running pretty smoothly" without a head coach. And whether New Zealand prove that to be the case against an erratic but talented opponent will be among the more fascinating elements of the week.


University Oval, noon today

NEW ZEALAND(from) Dan Vettori (c), Tim McIntosh, Martin Guptill, Daniel Flynn, Ross Taylor, Peter Fulton, Grant Elliott, Brendon McCullum, Iain O'Brien, Daryl Tuffey, Shane Bond, Chris Martin.

PAKISTAN(from) Mohammad Yousuf (c), Salman Butt, Imran Farhat, Khurram Manzoor, Fawad Alam, Umer Akmal, Shoaib Malik, Faisal Iqbal, Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Asif, Umar Gul, Mohammad Aamer, Yasir Arafat, Saeed Ajmal, Danish Kaneria, Abdur Rauf.

UMPIRES Simon Taufel (Australia), Billy Doctrove (West Indies). Third official: Rudi Koertzen (South Africa).

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