Jun 08, 2014 Sports
ESPNcricinfo – West Indies have undergone a shake-up since they last appeared in whites. Darren Sammy has retired from Tests, Denesh Ramdin is captain now and their bowling looks vastly different. Kemar Roach has returned to full fitness. The selectors have also recalled Jerome Taylor, who will hope to end a four-year wait since his last Test cap, and made a last-minute decision to recruit Jason Holder for today’s start of the first test against New Zealand at Sabina Park in Jamaica.
The penetrative ability of West Indies’ bowling has been a concern for a while but this squad – with Sulieman Benn and the returning Shane Shillingford as lead spinners – seems to have covered most bases. Sunil Narine was discounted from consideration after he could not meet an ultimatum to join the squad by June 1 owing to IPL commitments.
Shillingford has been a standout performer for his side of late – he has 51 wickets in his last nine Tests – but this series marks his return to international cricket since being suspended for a suspect action and New Zealand coach Mike Hesson has already voiced concern over how he will be monitored.
Recently any West Indies attack has been left mopping up a below-par batting performance. In the last 12 months, they have gone past 300 only twice and have also been guilty of doing well in one innings and failing miserably in the next.
Chris Gayle, who is scheduled to play his 100th Test at his home ground, would be eager to prove his fitness and provide a display befitting the fanfare for the occasion.
For the visitors, combating spin will gain top priority. New Zealand’s batting – especially their in-form middle order of Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling – does have the capacity to rise above their mental block against quality spin.
Utilising spin is where the greater concern lies. The search for Daniel Vettori’s successor has been frustrating. Jeetan Patel complicated the situation when he remained with Warwickshire and withdrew his name from consideration for this tour. The result is that Ish Sodhi, with six Tests to his name, will feature as lead spinner. The 21-year old legspinner has shown some control and also glimpses of plotting a batsman out. To assist him is Mark Craig, a 27-year old offspinner who is yet to make his New Zealand debut.
Watch out for
The vacancy resulting from Sammy’s retirement has paved way for one of West Indies’ most promising fast bowlers to return to the national fold. Jerome Taylor has not played a Test since November 2009. A troublesome back and hip have cost him several opportunities, but he returned to first-class cricket this season and finished as Jamaica’s second-leading wicket-taker in the Regional Four Day Competition.
Kane Williamson is New Zealand’s anchor. His technical purity assists in combating most adversities and swift and assured footwork ensures he is well-placed to tackle spin – he made 42 of the team’s 60 as Rangana Herath ran rampant in the World T20. A rich season in 2013-14 has identified him as one of the most dependable batsmen in the current Test circuit.
New Zealand drained the two practice games they had to the fullest as Jamaica Select XI’s openers batted twice in the second innings of the second match and the bowlers continued even after the home side was all out. Two notable positives were the performances of Sodhi, who picked up a five-wicket haul, and Craig, who claimed eight victims across two games. However, concern surrounds the opening combination. Both Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford have had lean seasons and Tom Latham, if picked, would be playing his second Test. Hesson had hinted at having settled on which two would head the batting order, but said it was a toss-up between Neil Wagner and Craig depending on how they assessed the pitch.
West Indies’ preparation for the series included a training camp in Barbados under the guidance of Garry Sobers, Curtly Ambrose and Richie Richardson. Gayle occupies the spotlight, both because of his landmark and for his fitness. He looked out of sorts in the IPL and had consulted a specialist in Germany regarding his back problem. Ottis Gibson, their coach, was hopeful of a full recovery. Gayle himself has said he is “fit, ready and raring to go.” A late call to include Holder in the squad also indicates he might feature in the XI if they decide against a second spinner.
Pitch and conditions
Early warning has been sounded by Marlon Samuels that the series will be decided by which team exhibits more patience. The surfaces in the Caribbean have got slower in recent times. However, Shane Bond, New Zealand’s bowling coach, felt the pitch at Sabina Park was conducive to all comers. “I think it’s a little bit damp at the moment, but if you look at the wicket it’s got pace, bounce and turn,” he said. In addition to ground conditions, the visitors would have to account for a hotter climate. West Indies, who had struggled with Dunedin’s chilly temperatures at the start of the 2013 series, would prefer the sun to be a more permanent fixture than the forecast of isolated thunder showers.
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