Test Cricket has been prone in the past to periods of great dominance from individual teams. The West Indies steamrolled their way through the 1980’s and then Australia barged their way to the top; all brash arrogance and bristling intensity in the 1990’s. The Australian legacy began to crumble in 2005 and was fully dismantled by 2007 as the main protagonists played their final match. From 2010-13 you could make a reasonable case that England and South Africa swept all before them in the Test arena, combining series victories against India and Australia in a variety of conditions.
So why the vague history of Test Cricket I hear you ask? Well, over the past two years we have entered an almost unprecedented era of Test cricket. One where, with a couple of obvious exceptions, anybody can beat anybody in almost all conditions. As opposed to an era of single team supremacy, or even 2 or 3 team control, 6 or 7 Test playing nations now believe that they have the squad and the ability to rise to the top of the Test rankings.
South Africa are often considered the premier Test team of the current generation but Australia will also try to lay claim to holding that title. Australia will point towards their 5-0 dismantling of England last winter and their win in hostile South African conditions shortly after. England themselves will point you in the direction of their 3-0 Ashes dominance in 2013 and their demolishing of India the summer after as evidence of their ability. Pakistan are also formidable opponents in Test cricket these days, particularly in their adopted UAE home, as Australia found out late last year. Sri Lanka also snared a rare away Test series win – in England of all places!
But coming up hard on the rails, playing with their own unique style, New Zealand are turning heads amongst the seasoned Test cricket watcher. For so many years considered One-Day dark horses and Test novices, now the Black Caps command respect from all who take them on. Indeed, a Test tour of New Zealand is now met with trepidation more akin to a tour to Australia or South Africa.
New Zealand cricket’s decision a few years ago to do away with empty Test arenas has proven inspired. By moving Test matches to the more ‘boutique’ cricket grounds at the University Oval and the Basin Reserve, as opposed to the cavernous Eden Park and Westpac Stadium, not only has the atmosphere improved but also attendances have increased, as spectators have warmed to the longer form in New Zealand like never before. But perhaps the best consequence of changing the grounds has been the pitches themselves. Instead of the drop in pitches on converted rugby grounds, the new Test venues enjoy all year care and tend to be good cricket wickets. This means plenty of seam movement, particularly on the mornings of Day 1 and 2 of a Test. These greener, more seam friendly pitches have coincided with a burgeoning seam attack and have combined to make New Zealand a fearsome opponent on their own patch.
The once under-rated new ball pairing of Trent Boult and Tim Southee are now beginning to raise a few more eyebrows and can lay claim to being the premier new ball pair in world cricket for all conditions. Southee has been around the side for over 6 years now and has added nous and experience to the tearaway style of his youth. His control with the new ball is improving all the time and when united with his hefty lower order hitting he is indispensible to his side. His partner in crime, Boult, has been a class act since he emerged into the test arena in late 2011, his left arm angle, swing in to the right handers, and lively pace, make him a handful in all conditions. Southee and Boult’s 240 combined test wickets have come at an average well below 30. However, the key to New Zealand’s success in the pace department is in their depth. Behind the Southee and Boult there are a plethora of seam bowlers jostling for the 1 or 2 remaining places. Neil Wagner has performed admirably over the past 2 years, as have Mitchell McCleneghan and all-rounders Corey Anderson and Jimmy Neesham.
While the bowlers have impressed me immensely over the past season, it’s hard to ignore the exploits of the Kiwi batsmen too. Leading from the front is the figurehead of this new era of New Zealand Test cricket, the captain Brendon McCullum. When McCullum gave up the gloves and took on the captaincy last season, it was a reasonable question to ask whether he would warrant a place in the side as a batsman alone. The Kiwi skipper has answered that question and then some. His 202 in the UAE set up an historic Test series draw for the black caps and cemented his place firmly as the finest New Zealand captain of recent years. Not happy with just catapulting his side to test victories in the sub-continent, McCullum also single-handedly saved the Basin Reserve Test vs. India earlier in the year with a remarkable 302 – the fist triple century by a New Zealand batsman. His sensational form has marked a stellar year for the Black Caps and his swashbuckling stroke-play has epitomised the brand of cricket played by the Kiwi’s over the last year. The style that has brought them unprecedented success across the globe.
Alongside McCullum’s record breaking exploits, it is important to mention the involvement of both former captain Ross Taylor and rising star Kane Williamson. Both batsmen have supported their captain on tours to the UAE as well as strengthening their home record. Williamson is perhaps amongst the most promising batsmen in the world currently, and yesterday I tipped him to be the top run scorer in the World Cup, but in Tests his talents are even more evident. His skill off both the front and back foot is exemplary and his temperament is ideally suited to a long stint at the top of the Test game.
Things are certainly looking rosy for the New Zealand side, a hugely significant Test series result in the UAE at the end of last year may just herald in a new era. While maybe not an era of Kiwi world dominance, it could just be the time when New Zealand are not just a respected but a feared opponent.