Glorious Test cricket is back and with a whole new dose of context sprinkled on to them whites like chicken salt. The Blackcaps get their Test Championship campaign underway with a two Tests in Sri Lanka, before a very different series in Australia come the summer time and while I do believe we will get plenty of selection funk over the next 12 months for the Test team, everything about this first squad to tour Sri Lanka was predictable.
As folks to pick apart squad selections, offering insight and new angles to whatever the Blackcaps decision makers have dished up, there are limited offerings from this squad. The Test group is incredibly settled and the only wrinkle here comes with the reliance on spin, although taking four spinners, three of whom are 30-years-old or older does seem a bit excessive.
Two Tests, four spinners. That alone is slightly weird considering that playing two spinners in the 1st 11 seems the likeliest scenario, however this flows into personal bias or perspective when we talk about who the spinners should be. Ultimately, the Blackcaps are going to spin-friendly conditions and have four of Aotearoa's best spinners, all of whom have solid cases for selection. There is nothing wrong with that and as I'll explain below, this is all a great sign for kiwi cricket.
My preference would be, if four spinners are to be selected, that one of them should be there for the experience and that obviously leans towards a younger option like Ish Sodhi. Again, this comes with an asterix as I believe Sodhi and Mitchell Santner should consistently be selected in Test squads to give them the best opportunity to develop. Santner has received exactly that and while Sodhi may not have genuinely taken his opportunities in the Test arena, I'd rather see Sodhi selected merely in squads to build into his Test career.
That isn't to say that Sodhi is a better spinner than Ajaz Patel, Will Somerville or Todd Astle. Spinners flourish later in their careers and that's the idea I'm trying to align Sodhi with as I would keep selecting him in the Test squad in preparation for future action. The same idea applies to Will Young, who was not selected in this Test squad despite being the next batsman in line; younger players need to be eased into steady Test cricket.
Such planning and preparation has been absent through the Niche Cache's Blackcaps journey, so I'd never expect such clarity in setting younger players up for international success. Some level of pressure is on the four spinners selected, depending on who actually plays and this will be a niggly challenge considering that the Blackcaps should be favourites to win the series in Sri Lanka - even though it's in Sri Lanka.
For the Blackcaps to win, the spinners need to be the best bowlers. Doing so against Sri Lankan batsmen in their conditions won't be easy and to assume that the same performances we saw in the United Arab Emirates vs Pakistan last year, will flow into this Sri Lanka series is silly. Still spin-heavy, but different conditions and different opposition in different context.
When pondering any selection alternatives, names like Sodhi, Young, Lockie Ferguson, Jimmy Neesham and Matt Henry pop into the noggin. All five of those dudes could very easily slide into a Blackcaps Test team and I'd suggest that they will all play at least one Test during this Test Championship. Such depth is going to be crucial for the Blackcaps as the lack of Test cricket Aotearoa plays, lends itself to having very little rotation of players because the Blackcaps only play sporadic Test cricket and don't have the issue of workload injuries or a genuine lack of form.
Suddenly the Test Championship injects a steady flow of Test cricket into Aotearoa's veins and while they are still itsy-bitsy series', injuries will impact the Test squad. 15 players were named to tour Sri Lanka, I named another five who are next in line type of players and that gives Aotearoa a pool of at least 20 players who could step into a Test squad. If there aren't any injuries, there will still be changes from the Sri Lanka squad to the squad to tour Australia and so on as the conditions change.
Two of the away series are sub-continent tours; Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. One tour to Australia and home series against India, West Indies and Pakistan, which means there is only one other series that will see such a reliance on spin. That tour of Bangladesh is in August next year, a long time away and a lot could change, a sub-plot that starts with the best spinners emerging from the Sri Lanka series.
Not only is this draw quite favourable for Aotearoa, I'm excited for this pool of Test players to be explored because there has been no need for forced squad rotation with Aotearoa's crappy Test schedule. Now the pressure is on and as someone who is hugely optimistic about Aotearoa's cricketing talent below the Blackcaps level, I reckon Aotearoa has the depth to roll through the Test Championship.
Sodhi adds spin depth.
Henry and Ferguson add seam depth; Ferguson's best domestic average is First Class cricket where he averages 24.65.
Young adds batting depth.
Neesham adds all-rounder depth; probably replace Colin de Grandhomme at some point.
The other bloke I'd like to throw into the equation is Central Districts Stags opener Greg Hay, who adds opening depth. Hay is the best opener to slide in for a series here or series there if Jeet Raval or Tom Latham is unavailable and I would much rather put Hay in as opener, than promote Young. Young is the best #3-5 option, Hay is the best opener.
Like Sodhi, I would prefer to ease a up and coming opener into the equation. The difference between the spin situation and opening batsmen, is that Aotearoa has a talented young spinner, while lacking such an opener. Guys like Henry Cooper (ND), Rachin Ravindra (Well) or Jack Boyle (Cant) are promising openers at domestic level, however the opener depth currently sits more with Hay, Hamish Rutherford, Martin Guptill and that type of experienced performer.
Hay is the best bloke to do a job and as the Raval/Latham duo feels like a long-term combo, any change here will likely be a case of absorbing an absence, do your job and then Raval/Latham return. We don't know what these guys are capable of at Test level, so I can't say that Aotearoa's depth is a major asset, but I do believe that Aotearoa has a layer of cricketers that has not been tapped into via that lack of Test cricket.
The Blackcaps need to win this series vs Sri Lanka, they have the tools to do so and this will be a fun challenge for the kiwis as Sri Lanka will be eager to perform strongly on home turf. Even though the following series' won't share a lot with the Sri Lankan series, what happens in Sri Lanka could influence how the Blackcaps Test group looks moving forward through the Championship. Don't sleep on how funky this series could be, in isolation and with a bigger picture in mind.
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Peace and love 27.