We have waited a long time for Test cricket to have some kind of context wrapped around it and now, after the first Test vs Sri Lanka, Aotearoa's Blackcaps have got their Test Championship campaign off to the worst start. There are a bunch of factors that bring a halt to any greater concerns, yet the simple fact is that the Blackcaps lost their opening Test Championship game and need to rectify that points situation.
Draws feel like a key result in away series/Tests. Salvaging a draw in foreign conditions will give the best teams separation at the top of the Test Championship ladder, especially the first Test where adjusting to the conditions will be a prominent issue for touring teams; fight hard for a draw, then adjust and hunt a win. Sri Lanka showed how difficult touring is going to be - either to seaming conditions or spin-friendly nations - as the hosts looked at ease dealing with a fairly mundane Blackcaps attack, while unleashing their own cluster of spinners to trouble the kiwis.
All four innings in this Test had scores under 300, which I found beautiful. Tough Test cricket, largely dictated by the spinners as of the nine bowlers who took a wicket in this Test, only one seamer took 4+ wickets while four spinners had 4+ wickets. The lone seamer to take notable wickets was Suranga Lakmal for Sri Lanka and 3 of his 4 wickets were lower order kiwi batsmen, highlighting the impact and influence of spin.
Aotearoa were led by Ajaz Patel and Will Somerville. Patel took 6 wickets @ 27.16avg/3.19rpo and Somerville took 4w @ 39avg/2.92rpo, both looked delightful despite Sri Lanka cruising to victory in the second winnings as they chased down 268 with 6 wickets in hand. The funkiest thing about Patel and Somerville's tweakers was the dip and drift they both get, Patel slightly more so than Somerville. Both were able to spin the ball strongly before the pitch flattened out, however the way the ball moved in the air helped me better understand the skill of these two wise lads.
Patel seems to be the best of the three spinners in this game and I'd chuck Patel up as the best spinner in Aotearoa at the moment. Caught-and-bowled is a mandatory dismissal for Patel at this stage, having grabbed one in the warm up game and then the first Test, which highlights how straight (attacking) Patel bowls and his skill with pace and flight. With no run up or apparent major body moves to extract anything different out of his bowling, Patel's simple action generates plenty of revs on the ball and allows for subtle variations in a Daniel Vettori-ish way.
Remember that Patel took 5w in the warm up game, followed by 5w and 1w in this Test. This was his second 5-wicket-baggie in Test cricket (33.10avg) and in a odd little way, the Test reflected what the kiwi bowlers were up to in that warm up game as Patel was the leading wicket-taker in both games, Somerville dabbled in wickets and Mitchell Santner was primarily a non-factor.
Santner hasn't taken a wicket in Sri Lanka on this tour. Santner has played 18 Tests and in the first nine, Santner took 3+ wickets in five of those nine Tests. In his next nine Tests (bowled in eight), Santner has not taken 3+ wickets in any of these Tests. Most of Tests in the second half of Santner's career were in Aotearoa which is an obvious factor and I'm not going all in on exploring Santner's effectiveness just yet. Santner's bowling tends to always look good, however there may be a trend emerging of Santner struggling to offer wicket-taking support.
As an all-rounder, Santner has just one score of 30+ in his last 7inns. Averaging 24.34 with the bat and 39.08 with the ball in Test cricket, isn't worthy of automatic selection, although I do like having Santner in the 1st 11 ahead of Colin de Grandhomme. If you were to ask me about team selection right now, I'd point to Neil Wagner as an x-factor and considering the Blackcaps lacked a few bowling weapons to manufacture a breakthrough, Wagner should be given a crack in the second Test.
All that really needs to be said about the batting is that Kane Williamson has the fewest runs of any Blackcaps batsman in this series so far; Southee, Boult, Patel ... all the lads have more runs that Williamson's total of 4 runs. That's quite rare and the Blackcaps still managed to chip in with Ross Taylor and BJ Watling scoring 50+, as well as Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls getting starts in either innings.
Remember that the Blackcaps didn't bat in their warm up game and when we also consider that they tend to kinda suck against quality spinners in foreign conditions, not a terrible effort. What I'm most interested in is the work between Test tahi and Test rua, where new batting coach Peter Fulton and his Cantabrian homie Gary Stead will need to get busy with the batsmen. Are there genuine issues vs spin or can a few minor concerns be sussed out?
Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka is a very different challenge to hosting Sri Lanka in Aotearoa. Having heard (and talked about) so much about how the Blackcaps can adapt and flow through series/formats, they generally did a solid job in adapting to what Sri Lanka dished up in terms of conditions and team performance. There were some signs of not quite adapting as they should have though; maybe being a smidge too aggressive with the bat in patches or not adjusting to a pitch that lost life instead of offering the juice on day five.
The Blackcaps appear to have the players to win Tests in these conditions. What they do after adversity is going to be low key fascinating as these moments are when we actually learn about Stead as a coach and what various players can do. Until then, Aotearoa is 0-1-0 in the Test Championship.
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