Can This Black Caps Side Take The World No. 1 ODI Ranking?

In winning the Hadlee-Chappell series 2-0, the Black Caps have defeated the Australian side twice in an ODI series in 12 months and moved to No. 3 in the official ODI rankings. This essay poses the question: can Kane Williamson’s side achieve something unprecedented in New Zealand ODI cricket history, and take the No. 1 spot?

The Black Caps have never achieved the distinction of being able to claim that they were the best ODI side in the world. At times we have come close. The current Black Caps ODI unit might have it in them to go the rest of the way.

Let’s look at the team with reference to the official ICC player rankings.

On these rankings the figure of 750 stands out as a benchmark for world-class performance. To achieve a score of 750 a player must consistently excel in comparison to their peers. It is a rare enough distinction that only six current batsmen have rating scores above 750.

Williamson had a score of 752 in January 2015, and in the two years since then has almost always stayed above that figure. If we compare his returns with that of Martin Crowe, we can see that Crowe was similar but generally below the 750 mark. Crowe, however, maintained his standard of between 700 and 750 for nine years.

In the extremely unlikely event that Williamson’s career peters out from this point, he would end up with a career ratings trajectory similar to that of Andrew Jones, who hit his peak at roughly the same time as Crowe.

Jones, who was like Williamson in that he was rock-solid at No. 3 but unlike him in that he was picked late for the Black Caps, maintained a rating above 750 for about four years.

Ross Taylor, widely regarded as the second-best bat in this current side, has maintained a Martin Crowe level of performance for the past three years, in which time he has also been between 700 and 750. He has averaged 55.89 with the bat in those last three years.

What the Black Caps of Jones and Crowe’s day didn’t have was a classy hitter at the top like Martin Guptill. Although Guptill was not world-class for the first part of his career, he got on top of his game about two years ago and since then has risen above 750. He averages over 50 in the 50 matches he has played since the start of 2015.

The Black Caps have long had a tradition of excellent ODI bowling, going all the way back to Sir Richard Hadlee, who was one of the best of all. At one point the Black Caps had the rare distinction of having three of the top five ODI bowlers, in Shane Bond, Daniel Vettori and Kyle Mills.

Vettori was the only one of those three to be truly world-class for a decent length of time – Bond suffered many problems with injury and Mills was not enough of a wicket threat to really be considered in that top bracket.

The most skilled Black Cap with the ball currently is Trent Boult, who is ranked No. 1 in ODIs. Boult is a curious case, because he hasn’t even been in the ODI side very long. He has, however, maintained a bowling rating of 750 or thereabouts for most of the past 18 months, during which time he has also struggled for fitness.

But given that he is rapidly improving and is only 27, this column contends that over the next few years, Trent Boult will establish himself as the best ODI bowler in the world. He might not have quite as many wicket deliveries as Mitchell Starc, but he is far more relentlessly accurate and incisive.

Perhaps the major weakness of today’s Black Caps side in comparison to those of past years is the absence of a world-class allrounder. When Cairns, Oram, Styris and Vettori were operating the team had both depth and flexibility.

Certainly there is potential among the current wider squad for a quality No. 6 to emerge. Corey Anderson has even more potential than Cairns, but can’t stay on the field long enough to make an impact. Jimmy Neesham appears to have the goods, but has been unable to translate it into class in ODIs. The best bet going forward might be Mitchell Santner, as the errors he makes tend to be errors of inexperience.

With four world-class players in Williamson, Taylor, Guptill and Boult, and a handful of potential ones in Matt Henry (currently ranked 7 in ODI bowling but can’t make the side), Santner, Anderson, Tom Latham, Lockie Ferguson and Adam Milne, the Black Caps side of 2017 looks to have both a stronger core and much greater depth than ever before.

All it would take would be to maintain those standards or gradually improve them over time as players naturally get more experience, and the Black Caps will surely claim the No. 1 ranking sooner or later.

This side could actually take the No. 1 ranking fairly soon if enough results went in their favour. A 3-0 win in the ODI series against South Africa later this month is far from unthinkable, considering they just beat the world champion Australians 2-0 at home.

That would leave them second, two points behind Aussie, and therefore within striking range of the previously unachievable.

Australia in New Zealand 2017 ODI Series Preview

Missing an explosively terrifying opening batsman and a first drop with the hand-eye co-ordination of a god, the Australian cricket team came to New Zealand and got beaten 3-0. Prediction for this week? No, that was what happened the last time we were in that situation, in February 2007.

Building up for a later triumphant Cricket World Cup campaign, Australia rested both Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting for the 2007 Hadlee-Chappell series in New Zealand, and got beaten 3-0.

Absent the usual steel up top, Australia disintegrated in the first ODI to Shane Bond, who took 5-23 from 9.3 overs, and they lost by ten wickets. Chasing 337 in the second ODI, New Zealand won after a brilliant Ross Taylor century and some dogged lower-order batting. Again chasing in the third, only that time 347, the Black Caps won in the last over with the last wicket after a 165-run 6th wicket stand between Craig McMillan and Brendon McCullum.

The 2017 edition of the Hadlee-Chappell will be absent David Warner – who recently took AB de Villiers’s crown as No. 1 ranked ODI batsman, and Steve Smith, who averages 51.90 since the start of 2015.

In the 2016 edition in New Zealand, the Black Caps took the series 2-1: Australia won a close game and was thumped twice. Something similar might be on the cards for this week.

Like 2007, the Australia of 2017 will possess some fearsome bowling. Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins make up what must be close to the most dangerous trio ever seen in ODI history. Both Starc and Hazlewood are ranked in the top 5, and although Cummins is only ranked 27th that is a reflection of bad luck with injuries and not an absence of talent.

The Black Caps, for their part, have their own heavy artillery. Trent Boult is today the No. 1 ranked ODI bowler in the world, and Matt Henry is at No. 7. These two bowlers demolished the Australia top order in the first ODI of the 2016 series, leaving them at one stage 6/41.

Tim Southee might only be ranked 26th but he is dangerous with a bit of assistance, and Mitchell Santner is fast becoming like another Daniel Vettori in terms of miserly economy. This series will surely also feature more of Lockie Ferguson, who rocked the speed radar in Australia with a string of 150kph+ deliveries, but whose pace was often to the batsman’s advantage on the hard pitches.

The major difference between the two sides is in the batting. Australia’s best batsman in this series is arguably Glenn Maxwell, ranked 18th.

Because Australia is absent Warner at the top and Steve Smith ranked 8th, New Zealand have the top-ranked three batsmen in this match, with Kane Williamson at 5, Martin Guptill at 9 and Ross Taylor at 16. These three batsmen would all be in a Black Caps all-time ODI top 5.

Tom Latham may only average 33 in ODIs but appears to have now adjusted very well to the white ball game, and he is now averaging 40 in his last 25 ODI matches. As he is still only 24 and improving so rapidly in all forms of the game he is on a trajectory to become as good as the others.

Australia has brought in the reputable Aaron Finch to bolster the batting, but none of the names in the Australian top 5 – weak by historical standards even with Warner and Smith – will stand out to the Black Caps tacticians as a particular threat.

The obvious plan for the Black Caps to win the series, then, is to repeat how they won it in 2016, namely by bowling Australia out for substandard totals.

The market seems to think that this is very likely – the Black Caps are paying only $2.12 on BetFair to take the first ODI at Eden Park tomorrow. At the TAB a 3-0 Black Caps series win is paying only $6.50, which seems minuscule considering that Australia has won five Cricket World Cups.

Considering that the Hadlee-Chappell is fast becoming the ODI cricket equivalent of a marquee series like the Ashes or the Bledisloe Cup, probably the best strategy would be to save your betting money for chips and weed and just kick back to enjoy the degree of skill on display.

Bangladesh in New Zealand Test Series 2017, Second Test Preview

The Black Caps, the Tigers, and cricket fans will all be on the same side for the Second Test, their adversary: the Christchurch weather. It is forecast to rain on at least three of the five days of the Test, and anyone who has lived in the Garden City knows that this could mean anything from five days of blazing sun to five days of hammering down.

BetFair doesn’t seem too concerned about the possibility of the Draw, though. At time of writing this was paying $6.60.

On the face of it, this looks very high when you consider that the first two innings of the First Test went for over 1,100 runs for only 18 wickets. In fact, at Tea on the fourth day, the Draw was paying a mere $1.05, and the majority of cricket fans were astonished by how rapidly the second Bangladeshi innings fell apart from that point.

Probably the market is anticipating that Bangladesh will have difficulty replicating their batting feats of the first innings in Wellington – after all, Bangladeshi batsmen cannot break the record for their nation’s highest ever Test score every match, as Shakib al Hasan did with his superb 217 from 276 balls.

The Black Caps are paying $1.26, which is very marginal value at best.

Although they showed in Wellington that any of Tom Latham, Kane Williamson or Ross Taylor can play a matchwinning innings, it’s doubtful whether the Black Caps have the firepower with the ball to justify accepting a margin of twenty-six cents in the dollar.

The Black Caps bowlers may have knocked the Tigers out for 160 in their second innings, but aside from skilled bowling from Mitchell Santner, and Neil Wagner setting up Mominul Haque, this was mostly due to poor shot selection and being injured by the ball.

Certainly there is motivation for Tim Southee to bowl well in Christchurch because his claim to a spot in the team is arguably more tenuous than anyone else beside Henry Nicholls.

With match figures of 3 for 192 in Wellington, and with an average of 36 at a strike rate of 70 since the start of 2015, he will have to improve to keep the next generation of strike bowlers from replacing him in the first choice side.

Bangladesh are paying $16.50 at time of writing, which appears good value but not as good as the Draw. They were paying $24 before the First Test so the market has taken account of how impressive they were.

Taskin Ahmed was impressive without reward with the new ball on debut, suggesting that much of his promise in the shorter forms will carry over to Tests once he makes the adjustment. He may have only got one wicket but it was Williamson with a delivery of excellent line and length, and if a bowler can dismiss Williamson he can dismiss anyone.

Subashis Roy, the other debutant, did not have an action that suggested he would be dangerous but he did pick up 3 for 121, very good figures in the context of a defeat of this magnitude.

The main difficulty for Bangladesh is that – although Mominul Haque and al Hasan are a match for the Black Caps bowlers with the bat – Williamson, Taylor and arguably even Latham and BJ Watling outclass with the bat anything the Tigers can put forward with the ball.

So – as was amply demonstrated in Wellington – the Tigers may have the potential to put up a huge innings on occasion but probably lack the firepower to break the Black Caps defences twice themselves.

Certainly with regular captain Mushfiqur Rahim out injured for the second Test, the Bangladeshi men of silver will be having nightmares about how to get Kane Williamson out twice. Williamson was dismissed once in Wellington for the McCullumesque match return of 157 runs from 145 balls.

Considering that there are very few match outcomes that could result in the Black Caps being shorter than $1.26 at the end of the first day, the optimal betting strategy might be to lay the Black Caps before the start of play. In doing so, you will be in a position to cash in on both the possibility of rain and of a large first innings from Bangladesh.

This bet will very likely have value until at least late in the fourth day, given the fact that the batsmen in both teams are collectively more skilled than the bowlers in both teams.

The trader may also wish to consider that in the previous Test at this venue, the Black Caps lost Latham, Williamson and Taylor for a total of 16 runs in the first innings – and still won by eight wickets. So if the rain does not play a role there may well be a result.

Bangladesh in New Zealand Test Series 2017, First Test Preview

Facing Trent Boult on a green wicket in Wellington promises to be daunting challenge for the Bangladeshi top order

Bangladesh are currently paying $24 on BetFair to win the First Test of their 2017 tour to New Zealand, beginning tomorrow in Wellington. New Zealand are so heavily favoured that if Bangladesh can manage so much as a draw it pays $6.60.

On the surface of things, there are few areas in which Bangladesh have an advantage over New Zealand.

The Black Caps top order is looking as composed as it ever has done. Jeet Raval may have only played two Tests but across those two he averages 49.33, with two fifties and a not out. By the standards of Black Caps openers since Richardson, that’s as promising as anyone apart from Tom Latham.

Latham, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor comprise the rest of the top order, and one would have to go back as far as John Wright, Andrew Jones and Martin Crowe to find an equivalent solidity.

In the middle order things are not as certain. If Henry Nicholls cannot impress at No. 5 soon, he might have to return to domestic cricket for a spell while one of the next generation has a turn at trying to fill the Brendon McCullum-sized hole.

Colin de Grandhomme has, like Raval, only played two Tests but he has also looked solid, averaging 32, and also has a strong first-class record. Even though Watling at 7 is a solid pick, the overall feel of the Black Caps middle order is far from settled.

The pitch at the Basin Reserve is expected to be unusually green, which means that Trent Boult and Tim Southee can be expected to pose a considerable danger. In an odd quirk, Boult (12) and Southee (13) are, with Neil Wagner at 11th, grouped together on the ICC Test bowling rankings.

The Bangladeshi batting will depend heavily on certain key players, and if the Black Caps can get a couple of them early they will back themselves to roll the visitors, on a green wicket, for very little.

Although the spine of the Bangladeshi side is much stronger than it has been in recent years, few would expect it to stand strong against the Black Caps’ heavy artillery on a green track.

Opener Tamim Iqbal is the highest ranked of the Bangladeshi bastmen, at 22nd. An opener averaging 40 is an impressive asset for a side of Bangladesh’s reputation, and perhaps the foremost way that the Tigers could claim to have an advantage over their opposite numbers.

With a probable 4-5-6-7 of Mahmudullah, Shakib al Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim and Sabbir Rahman, the Bangladeshi middle order is a fairly battle-hardened unit. All four of these batsmen are, if not intimidating, skilled enough to make the Black Caps pay for any errors.

The major disadvantage that the Tigers will have is a bowling attack highly unsuited to the conditions they will face in Wellington. Shakib al Hasan may be ranked 2nd of all the allrounders in Tests, but his gentle left-arm spin will pose far less of a threat at the Basin Reserve than in Bangladesh.

If Bangladesh are to win, it will almost certainly take a handful of good spells from Taskin Ahmed, who with an ODI strike rate of 29 is growing into a strike weapon in the shorter form of the game, or from his expected new ball partner Subashis Roy, about who very little is known apart from a respectable first class average of 28.

The best hope for an interesting match might be for Bangladesh to win the toss and put the Black Caps in on a green wicket tomorrow morning, then to ambush the top order with their debutant new ball pair and get into the soft middle order before lunch.

Cannabis and Alcohol Users Must Unite Against the Wowsers and Control Freaks

Some Kiwis might have woken up from a New Year’s-induced stupor long enough to ask: “What happened to the Wellington Sevens?” Well, sit down, folks – I’ve got a bitter and tragic tale to tell.

The short of it, though, is this – New Zealand is full of wowsers, and those wowsers saw Kiwis having a good time and decided that this had to be stomped down as soon as possible, lest anyone get carried away.

The linked article notes that the occasion was essentially “a two day party with a bit of sevens rugby on the side” and it died because “the organisers have slowly strangled the event with tighter and tighter regulations as the years went by.”

Amazingly, putting several tens of thousands of drunks in a confined space in the middle of summer didn’t end without problems.

But, as this essay will argue, so what?

14 years of what had grown to become the single greatest annual festival in the Kiwi cultural calendar, was destroyed by the Fun Police in a couple of years: “the wowsers have killed off the atmosphere that made the Wellington Sevens so popular.”

This year, an event that used to sell out a 30,000+ seat stadium in minutes has struggled to sell so much as 1,300 tickets. The general attitude towards the event from once-loyal partygoers is that “they can’t have fun at the event in case they upset someone.

The question is: why do we let them do this to us?

So what if a few drunks caused trouble and created a sub-optimally family-friendly atmosphere. So what? Do we live in a McDonald’s playground?

It’s time to stop the rout! Everyone who enjoys drinking alcohol has to face up to this fact – cannabis is already illegal and tobacco is being made illegal. What’s going to stop the control freaks from cracking down on alcohol once they’ve banned tobacco?

And will Kiwis do anything it when it happens, or just take it up the arse as we have done thus far?

Is it acceptable that it is gradually becoming illegal to have fun? Are we doomed to end up like the Soviet Union, streets full of dour, grey-faced citizens conditioned to be afraid to crack a joke or a smile, lest they fall foul of some bureaucratic juggernaut that comes after them like a pitbull?

New Zealand has to face the very real possibility that, as our population continues to age, we will eventually ban every possible avenue of enjoyment and turn the whole country into a giant old folks’ home.

Pissheads and potheads, its time to acknowledge that we have a mutual enemy that is only growing in power as the population ages and our politicians become ever more out of touch with reality.

This enemy has existed all throughout history, and it waxes and wanes in strength according to the fashions of the age. It’s an enemy that resents all fun, resents all happiness, and which resents life itself.

The New Zealand Wowser is the single greatest threat to our quality of life. If we do not begin to oppose them, we will wake up one morning to find that everything is illegal except for a curated, Health and Safety-approved set of behaviours on a short list.

Is Ross Taylor the Most Underrated Kiwi Sportsman of All Time?

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Last month, the Black Caps cruised to a 2-0 series win against Pakistan in New Zealand, the first series win against the side in over 30 years. The Second Test was notable for involving yet another Ross Taylor century, this one an unbeaten 102 which was also the only century of the series.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first – it’s obvious that the most underrated sportsman in New Zealand could not possibly be a rugby player, and the other sports apart from cricket are either not popular enough for dominance in them to be meaningful (union, league, hockey, netball) or they are sports in which no Kiwis are any good (soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf). So cricket it is.

Taylor, who has been mentored by none other than Martin Crowe, has also taken after Crowe in terms of statistical dependency. Taylor has now played 78 Tests to Crowe’s 77, and the rest of their statistics are also strikingly similar.

Crowe ended his career with a test average of 45.36; Taylor is currently on 46.70. Crowe managed 17 tons in his Test career; Taylor has played one more match for one ton fewer. And both players favoured the No. 4 position – in 106 innings there Crowe averaged 49.39; Taylor has batted 4 on 123 occasions for an average of 49.99.

Their Test strike rates are very different: Taylor has 59.17 compared to Crowe’s 44.65. Taylor has also been part of a generally stronger side – he has enjoyed 23 Test wins compared to Crowe’s 16.

Considering that Martin Crowe has a place in the popular consciousness as New Zealand’s second-best cricketer ever, the fact that Taylor can match him on the numbers is enough to suggest that he belongs, like Crowe, Sir Richard Hadlee, Chris Cairns, Shane Bond and Kane Williamson, in any conversation about the very best.

Moreover, Taylor isn’t finished yet. He has been much more fortunate with injuries than Crowe, and could well end up playing 100 Tests. Since he keeps getting better with age – under Williamson’s captaincy Taylor averages 52.27 in 16 ODIs and 70.75 in 8 Tests – and is not yet 33, Taylor could cement his spot in the pantheon.

Some of what Taylor has already achieved goes well beyond what one might expect of a merely excellent batsman. A handful of selected career highlights:

1. 290 in Australia, the highest ever score by a visiting batsman in Australia in Test history. The craziest thing about this innings is that it didn’t end with a feather to the keeper or to swing, seam, drift, tweak or rip, but with a slog to square leg because that was the match situation. Selfless.

2. 154 not out in Manchester, in a match where England, who scored only 202 in the second innings, still won the match. Coming eight years before the 290 in Perth, this innings helps demonstrate that New Zealand has definitely got their money’s worth out of picking Taylor.

3. Taylor has an ODI average of 43.15, which is higher than all of Ricky Ponting (42.03), Kumar Sangakkara (41.98), Brian Lara (40.48) and Martin Crowe (38.55). What’s more, this is increasing – in Taylor’s last 100 ODI matches, dating back to 2010, he averages an astonishing 49.28.

4. A sequence of three consecutive ODI tons, one of only six batsmen in history to have achieved this.

5. Taylor easily has more international tons than any other Kiwi batsman – 31 (16 in 78 Tests and 15 in 176 ODIs). His closest rivals are Nathan Astle with 27, Kane Williamson with 22 and Martin Crowe with 21. Even Stephen Fleming, for so long New Zealand’s best batsman, managed a comparatively feeble 9 Test tons in 111 Tests and 8 ODI tons in 279 matches, about a third of Taylor’s century rate.

On top of all this, Taylor was a great batsman for several years when we had no-one else who was much good. Back in 2006, when Taylor made his ODI debut, McCullum was a floater, Astle and Fleming were past their best and we had no-one else.

Instead of coming in after Martin Guptill (averaging 42) and Kane Williamson (47), Taylor shared the top order with Lou Vincent (27), Hamish Marshall (27), James Marshall (25) and Craig McMillan (28). The statesmanlike Stephen Fleming was the best batsman in this side, and he averaged 32.

And Taylor has achieved all of these things while – and in this he is almost unheralded – playing in a sport that Samoans (Taylor’s mother is Samoan) generally don’t play. Taylor is himself aware of this, noting that most Polynesians choose to play a rugby code.

In this sense – straddling the European and the Polynesian worlds – Ross Taylor is the best possible kind of New Zealander. When he scores a ton and gives his pukana for the crowd and those watching on television, it’s symbolic of everything excellent about New Zealand. No-one who wasn’t a Kiwi could do what Taylor has done in the way that he has done it.

Given all of those accolades, it seems almost a formality to declare Taylor the most underrated Kiwi sportsman of all time.

The Future of Trans-Tasman Domestic Cricket

It’s perhaps fitting that cricket, the most traditional of all major sports in New Zealand, is the only one yet to jump on the Trans-Tasman bandwagon. League, union, netball and soccer all operate in Australian leagues at the highest domestic level. It seeems inevitable that the same will happen for cricket, so, what will it look like?

The concept of a Trans-Tasman domestic cricket league was a fantasist’s pipedream during the era of 50-over domestic cricket. But the idea has had new life ever since the advent of serious, high-quality, T20 domestic cricket.

Domestic cricket has hitherto had one immense hurdle, and that was the difficulty in getting punters to sit in a stadium for the duration of a cricket match when it wasn’t the top level of skill available. They will do it if the sport has matches of a shorter duration, and they will do it for long duration, top level cricket, but not long duration domestic cricket.

T20 fills both of those gaps. A domestic T20 match offers punters a chance to see a high level of cricket without making a time commitment of an entire day (or longer). The Indian Premier League has muscled into a space on the cricket calendar and it seems like it’s here to stay.

This column has taken the time to get caught up in some of the Big Bash League hype last summer. Frankly, it’s a very high level of cricket. Australia has to fit much more talent into a handful of domestic teams than the New Zealand system, and a consequence of this is a level of cricket somewhere between international level and New Zealand domestic level.

The BBL currently has eight teams, which corresponds to one team per two and a half to three million people. Probably, however, there are plans to expand, as the BBL is still in its infancy. If it is expanded to a similar size to the Trans-Tasman tournaments in other sports there would be room for two or three Kiwi teams in a league of 16 to 18.

Two might be difficult as the natural division into North and South Islands would leave a Northern team representing over three times the population of the Southern team.

Perhaps the best would be to divide New Zealand into North, Central and South. This would be very simple as it would mean Northern Districts and Auckland were North, Central Districts and Wellington were Central, and Canterbury and Otago were South.

Perhaps in the very long term we might end with a Super Rugby style arrangement of three Kiwi teams, seven Aussie teams for each state and five or six South African ones.

Three Kiwi T20 teams might leave us with something that looked like this. The Northern team isn’t far off international standard in its own right, but the other two are currently a fair bit weaker and might need to draft in overseas players to fill some gaps.

Northern:

1. Martin Guptill
2. Kane Williamson (c)
3. Dean Brownlie
4. BJ Watling (wk)
5. Corey Anderson
6. Colin Munro
7. Mitchell Santner
8. Tim Southee
9. Mitch McClenaghan
10. Lockie Ferguson
11. Trent Boult

Central:

1. Ben Smith
2. Ross Taylor (c)
3. Tom Bruce
4. Will Young
5. Tom Blundell
6. Luke Ronchi (wk)
7. Doug Bracewell
8. Josh Clarkson
9. Adam Milne
10. Ben Wheeler
11. Hamish Bennett

Southern:

1. Peter Fulton
2. Tom Latham (c)
3. Jimmy Neesham
4. Henry Nicholls
5. Derek de Boorder (wk)
6. Andy Ellis
7. Matt Henry
8. Neil Wagner
9. Kyle Jamieson
10. Josh Finnie
11. Ed Nuttall

Steve Smith a Colossus as Australia Win First ODI

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Steve Smith had the sort of day that all cricketers dream of. From the moment he won the toss and elected to bat it was his day. Smith scored 164 out of Australia’s total of 324/8, then he took a flying screamer of a catch to dismiss BJ Watling and Australia won by 68 runs.

New Zealand won the first session, with movement on the grassy Sydney Cricket Ground pitch inducing both Australian openers to chop on. They were in an excellent position at the fall of the fourth wicket, which came when a solid straight drive from Smith went through the hands of Jimmy Neesham and ran Mitchell Marsh out at the non-striker’s end. At that point Australia were 92/4 and it felt that only Smith stood between competitiveness and disaster.

He then embarked upon a 127-run stand with Travis Head, who was fortuitously dropped by Matt Henry at mid off early in his innings. When Head was brilliantly caught and bowled by Trent Boult, Matthew Wade joined him at the crease, and the two went on the counterattack.

They scored 83 runs in 6.1 overs, and even a flurry of wickets at the end couldn’t stop them from posting a very strong total, in this case 324/8.

Australia won the early session much like New Zealand had, accounting for Tom Latham and Kane Williamson for single-digit scores. Jimmy Neesham came in at 4 in place of Ross Taylor, and was able to hit through the line well, scoring 34 off 36.

Perhaps the decisive act in the match came again from Smith, only this time in the field. A short and wide ball from Marsh to BJ Watling was dispatched, but Smith threw himself to his left and caught the ball at full stretch on his thumb, taking a face plant into the SCG turf so as to not spill the ball.

From there it was up to Guptill, and while he and Munro put on a brisk 45 Guptill was dismissed against the run of play, slapping an Adam Zampa long hop to Glenn Maxwell at midwicket. Guptill had scored 114 from 102 balls and looked set for another titanic innings, timing almost everything out of the very middle, before the dismissal.

At that point New Zealand still needed 140 runs in 17 overs with 5 wickets in hand, but the run rate was accelerating out of range of their hitting power.

Colin Munro and Matt Henry gave the Black Caps some late hope, getting them to within 72 runs before Henry was deceived by a clever Pat Cummins slower ball, which he skied to George Bailey for 27 off 15. When Munro was next out in a very similar fashion for 49 off 59 the Black Caps were unable to offer further resistance and were dismissed for 256.

Despite the loss, New Zealand will take heart from the performance, and may be regretting the decision to not review an lbw shout on Smith when he was on 13. Replays showed the decision would have been overturned and from there it would have been a very different match.

In the end, the catching skill of Australia was probably the decisive factor, as a Watling-Guptill partnership at that time of the match might have brought the Black Caps very close to a win.

The series continues in Canberra on Tuesday.

The Answer to the Martin Guptill Question is Nathan Astle

nathanastle

What do you do if you have a fantastically successful ODI opening batsman whose skillset is not particularly well suited to opening in Tests but on talent grounds alone cannot be left out of the Test side? There was an easy answer when the batsman in question was Nathan Astle 20 years ago.

The answer back then was simply to bat Astle at 5. Astle played 100 Test innings at 5 or lower, and averaged over 37 there. His most notable innings was the then fastest Test double century – 222 runs off only 168 balls.

Although the team that Astle came into in 1996 was far weaker than the one Martin Guptill is trying to break into, it seemed natural for the free-spirited, hard-hitting Astle to begin his career at 5.

Guptill never had the easy luxury of simply slotting into 5, mostly because Brendon McCullum had that spot nailed down and partly because the Black Caps were so desperate to find a decent opener that anyone with notable skill was thrown into the breach.

Nathan Astle averaged 34 with the bat in ODI cricket, and three runs more in Tests. Martin Guptill averages 42 in ODI cricket – three runs more would see him averaging 45. Moreover, Guptill’s world-class fielding adds at least five runs to his value per innings.

A value of fifty runs per innings at No. 5 might sound fanciful given the returns we have so far got from him opening the batting. It should be emphasised, however, that opening the batting in Tests is not only very different to opening in ODIs, it is also very different to batting further down the order, as the opening Test batsman faces a swinging ball, first-choice bowlers who are not tired and an aggressive field.

Although the sample size is very small, Guptill has already played 6 innings at No. 5 – and he averages 68 there.

The other medium-term options for the Black Caps at 5 are Henry Nicholls, who has so far been less impressive there than Guptill was at opener, a promoted allrounder such as Anderson, Neesham or Santner, or blooding a youngster such as Will Young or Tom Bruce.

Guptill at 5 would be better than all of those options. Leaving a player of his talent out of the side because he did not succeed in a role not suited for him, when there is a vacant role perfectly suited to him, is madness.

Black Caps in India 2016: Third Test Preview

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After some doubt, it now looks like the Third Test between the Black Caps and India will proceed as planned, at Indore between 08 and 12 October. For the Black Caps, for whom the series is lost, this match is about putting into practice what has been learned from the first two Tests towards the goal of winning some respectability.

The Black Caps have not been poor on this tour. Far from it. Barring a disastrous Day 3 in the 1st Test and Day 2 in the second, they have been India’s equal.

In Kanpur, the Black Caps looked well ahead at the end of Day 2. In reply to India’s 318 they were 152/1. Day 3 was a disaster, losing 9 wickets for 110 and then letting India get to 159/1 by stumps.

Likewise in Kolkata. The Black Caps had India at 239/7 at the end of Day 1, but a horror Day 2 saw India put on 77 for their last 3 wickets and then get the Black Caps 128/7 at stumps. Although the Black Caps lost by almost 200 runs they did take 20 wickets, which is a good sign for a visiting team in India.

If the Black Caps can get through this third Test without such a horror day they could well win.

There’s a solution to the Martin Guptill problem. It’s called Nathan Astle. The dashing ODI opener was not even considered for a Test opening spot, despite being good enough to score 16 centuries in the shorter format. Astle began his serious Test batting career at 5 and stayed there.

Guptill has been unlucky because positions 3, 4 and 5 have been sewn up for years and so the only realistic option was to open. Now with Brendon McCullum no longer with the side, there is a gap at 5 that Guptill could potentially fill. Not only will an older red ball will behave a lot more like the white ball that he is used to batting against, but he is simply far too talented a batsman to leave out of the side just because he was not a great success as opener.

With a Test average of 25, Henry Nicholls probably hasn’t done enough to cement the No. 5 position, and with several impressive young bats coming through he might not get much of a chance. Nicholls’s technique might be more suited to the opening position, and his 76 against Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander with essentially a new ball in South Africa recently suggests that he has enough potential there to be worth a look.

With Trent Boult fully entrenched as The Black Caps’s premier paceman and with Neil Wagner, who at a bowling average of 29.63 has much better returns, it appears that Tim Southee is now competing with Matt Henry for that third seamer spot.

Matt Henry may rightly be ahead of Tim Southee now. One match with six wickets at 17.50 could be written off as lucky, but anyone watching the Second Test might well have remarked that Henry’s pitch map was much better than Southee’s, forcing the batsman to play much more and without the regular boundary balls.

Tom Latham seems to have difficulty concentrating past a certain point. He is building a Flemingesque record with an average of 38.38, 9 fifties and 5 centuries. Whether or not he can overcome this will determine if he can become a great opener along the lines of Richardson or Turner.

BetFair does not consider the Black Caps to have much of a chance: they are paying $6.20 to win at the exchange, compared to India’s $1.60 (the Draw is $4.60).