New Zealand’s preparation for the England Tests and the WTC Final will be ramped up on Thursday as all Blackcaps currently in England will lock horns with each other in a 2-day intrasquad warm-up match at the Rose Bowl. We look at the sub-plots that could make this innocuous encounter interesting.
The opening conundrum
For all the talk about New Zealand being a completely settled side, there is still one key question that remains unanswered: who opens with Tom Latham? Tom Blundell, since his heart-warming ton at the MCG in 2019, has been the designated partner for Latham, but there are no guarantees that the wicket-keeper batter will continue to ply his trade up top. The emergence of both Devon Conway and Will Young means that Blundell is essentially now fighting with two superior-top order specialists, and, equally, the imminent retirement of BJ Watling means that it is only a matter of time before Blundell drops to No.7, fulfilling his destiny as Watling’s successor.
So assuming Blundell is ruled out of contention - not least because opening with him makes no logical long-term sense - where Conway bats in the intra-squad warm-up game could go a long way in indicating who would be partnering Latham come June 2. Conway has plied his trade at No.3 for Wellington, but with the only vacancy in the side being the opening slot, the management choosing to open with the southpaw could indicate that they have zeroed in on him as the second opener for the three Tests.
Equally, should Conway not open, it could mean that Will Young is the front-runner. Young opened on his Test debut for the Kiwis, but his recent form for Durham, as an opener, could tempt the management into giving the right-hander the nod: across his last 3 innings (all as an opener), the 28-year-old has struck two tons. But, most importantly, he has already spent close to 45 days in the country getting acclimatized to the conditions. Could that prove to be a telling factor?
The fitness of Colin de Grandhomme and Ross Taylor
New Zealand, luckily, have a full-strength squad at their disposal for the WTC Final, but it has to be noted that two key members of the squad - Colin de Grandhomme and Ross Taylor - are recovering from injuries and are not guaranteed to be 100%. While de Grandhomme is yet to play a game of professional cricket after undergoing surgery on his right ankle, it was less than a month ago that Taylor encountered an injury scare, straining his calf muscle during a training camp.
Intra-squad warm-up matches are generally low-intensity affairs, but the two-day contest should, nevertheless, give the New Zealand management a fair idea of how ‘ready’ the aforementioned duo are. In Taylor’s case, one assumes Stead would be keen to monitor how the veteran reacts on the field and runs between the wickets, while in the case of de Grandhomme, the management might keep an eye on how many overs the Big Man sends out.
It goes without saying that, if fit, both Taylor and de Grandhomme would walk into the starting XI, but with a huge month ahead, the Kiwis would be aware that they can ill-afford to risk players who are not 100%.
Can Mitchell Santner prove his worth?
That New Zealand will be playing the intrasquad game at the Rose Bowl - where the WTC Final will be played - will delight the Kiwis, but the game could prove to be more than just a warm-up for Mitchell Santner. The left-arm spinner is, realistically, the only slow bowler who could feature in any of the three Tests next month, and though Santner featured in the Mount Maunganui Test against Pakistan, the warm-up game starting Thursday could very well be his only chance to impress; to make a case for selection.
Santner’s recent record in Test cricket is appalling - 3 wickets in his last 6 innings @ average 103.00 - but with there still being an air of uncertainty over who plays at No.7 - a seaming all-rounder, a specialist batsman or a spinning all-rounder - a strong showing from the left-armer could get the management thinking. Southampton is historically known to be a wicket that provides assistance to spinners and thus even if Santner is destined to be left out of the Lord’s Test, a strong showing in the intrasquad game could potentially earn him a place in the WTC Final.
Santner also averages a mere 13.33 in Tests since his century against England two years ago, thus, given he’d be required to bat at No.7, the all-rounder might also need to put runs on the board to keep himself in the mix.
A first look at Kyle Jamieson outside New Zealand
“Can Kyle Jamieson do it outside New Zealand?” is the cricketing equivalent of “Can Messi do it on a cold night at Stoke?”. All of Jamieson’s six Tests have thus far come in New Zealand conditions tailor-made for seam bowling, and, to his credit, he’s made the most out of it: he’s taken a remarkable 36 wickets in just 12 innings at a quite astonishing average of 13.27.
In all fairness, conditions in England too will be skewed in favour of pacers, but the intrasquad warm-up game will provide us with the opportunity to see if Jamieson can adapt. Bowling with a Dukes ball in the months of May and June in England, though an enticing prospect, is a challenging task no matter how good a bowler you are, and these next two days will give us an idea of how big a threat Jamieson will be, over the course of the next month.
Seam has been the big man’s friend all along, in Test cricket, but it will certainly be fascinating to see if Jamieson unleashes a whole new version of himself, wherein he swings the ball as proficiently as he seams it. The India batters, from their hotel rooms, will be keenly watching the big man roll, that’s for sure.