As I speak(write), New Zealand are once again in trouble against their Trans-Tasman rival on a territory where they’ve always struggled. The visitors made five drastic changes ahead of the third and final Test, in Sydney, owing to illness, injury and some weird flex.
Speaking about the player selection, the chaos in the Kiwi system is beyond my comprehension as the year gone by has been witness to a string of selection lapses by New Zealand. Starting from their conundrum circling the openers in the World Cup to the ongoing series in Australia, wherein all the blunders came out aggravated, selection has been all over the place. Players have been in and out since the first Test at Perth. It all started with New Zealand losing Lockie Ferguson, Trent Boult’s replacement, on the opening day itself. It went on and on with Tom Blundell replacing an underfire Jeet Raval. And now Raval’s come back under weird circumstances has made a full circle of New Zealand’s woes. And within the whirlwind of the vicious circle, lies illness and injuries ruling out key players.
Hence, New Zealand walked into the third Test with a fringe of changes, precisely five. While Kane Williamson, Mitchell Santner and Henry Nicholls were ruled out due to illness, Trent Boult’s hand injury had already struck him off. To cover for them Glenn Phillips was flown into Australia, Todd Astle finally got his call and Matt Henry, Jeet Raval and Will Somerville were called back. Out of these obligated changes, the ‘resting’ of Tim Southee and the consequent bestowing of captaincy duties on Tom Latham came as a bizarre surprise. This move might imply that the Kiwis have given up on the series, which they are losing 2-0, and treating this Test as a dead rubber. But in the current scenario, every Test match matters when the ongoing ICC Test Championship factor comes into play. And New Zealand need it more than ever, having lost three and won only a single game in the competition so far. The No.2 ranked team could’ve been in a better position than fifth in the points table had the home series against England been taken into account. So all of that combined, resting your strike bowler could’ve waited, right?
Agreed that the team barely shows three seamers in the ongoing SCG Test and, let me tell you, none of them are genuine strike bowlers. While Colin de Grandhomme, who by the way has done well in the series so far, is more of a catalyst, Neil Wagner is a workhouse around whom strike bowlers do their job. And who is Matt Henry, with a bowling average that is equal to Joe Root’s batting average, in Test cricket? Out of these three bowlers, only Wagner has a well-defined role. So looking at these factors, while the rest of the four changes were still understandable but dropping Southee was very unlike New Zealand, wasn’t it?
But what if I tell you that they did knowingly!
It all comes down to how important Tim Southee is to the team now and in the future. The last four years have seen a drastic deterioration in Southee’s ODI form, but the pacer has maintained his brilliance in the shortest and longest formats. Ever since the World Cup, wherein Southee only played one game, he has played all games across formats for New Zealand. There have been too many in and outs, starting with Williamson dropping out of the Sri Lanka T20Is, which led to the transfer of captaincy duties to Southee. Only Ross Taylor is the other player who has featured in all games along with him. In fact, the seasoned pacer has played as many games as Mohammad Shami and Pat Cummins. If the team does say that they have rested Southee, then probably the paceman who has played 14 international matches since deserves rest.
We all know, it was unacceptable for the fans and experts who might’ve even wanted Southee to lead in Williamson’s absence. No wonder former captain, forever hero, Brendon McCullum fired to this. "This is a team short of experience, they've lost their leader Kane Williamson and they've struggled in parts of this series. He [Southee] took nine wickets in the first test match. You replace him with Matt Henry who hasn't set the world on fire at test level yet, but is a tremendous talent. They're not comparable numbers between the two,” criticized McCullum on Channel Seven.
"I'd have played both of them and left out Colin de Grandhomme who is opening the bowling. He will present the seam but he's 120kmh. It's menacing in terms of line and length but not speed. The extra 10-15kmh from Southee [would have been handy] in the most bowler-friendly conditions we've seen this summer."
But what mattered were Gary Stead’s words who, by the way, had hinted at something ahead of the game. "We'll work and look at the developmental areas of our game, through our first-class program and our A program, and it's certainly always something that's discussed – how can we develop people that can be successful all around the world? Australia no doubt is one of the toughest places in the world to come and win,” he confessed.
"It's not the first time we've been beaten and it probably won't be the last either. Our ethos is to find small improvements, because you don't find massive gains all of a sudden at this level. For us it's about chipping away, and doing the simple things as well as we can."
Perhaps, the head coach was implying to start off from scratch with the Indian team touring them late in January. The two Tests that will follow the heavily-packed limited-overs fixtures is what the team should be targetting. While it will be wise to not include Southee in the ODI team, the veteran is sure to play all the five T20Is and of course the Test series. Why wouldn’t the team want Southee to be entirely fit for that given he might be their only strike bowler even then due to Boult’s injury woes?
Think about it, even with a full-fledged New Zealand team, without everyone in Tom Blundell-like form, would they be able to overthrow a team that’s Labuschagne-strong? Let me put it straight, what the Kiwis, even at their best, can’t beat is a Tim Paine-strong side in Australia. Perhaps, New Zealand would’ve played Southee when everyone including Kane Williamson and Trent Boult were playing, because that would’ve given them a hope of winning. Adding perspective to this, a team that has already lost too many players to injury, are saving their best for the heavy schedule up next. Now, do they seem to be as lost as you thought they are when you first started reading this piece, or do you know think that it is, in fact, their best-laid plans for the future? After all, New Zealand are scheduled to play non stop till the end of March and a validated conclusion to my point will be seen once you watch Southee feature in all of them.
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