West Indies began their mission to hold onto the No.7 spot in the World Test rankings yesterday when the opening Test of two against New Zealand began at University Oval in Dunedin.
Through no effort of their own, West Indies moved from the lowest rung of Test places (besides Bangladesh), when New Zealand continued a chronic slide that culminated in them being swept in their preceding two-Test series in neighbouring Australia.
Not much separates the two sides, and it is shaping up to be a contest which will ultimately decide the holder of the most unwanted title in Tests.
‘We’re up against a good team and you have to say it is even-Stevens,’ said West Indies captain, Chris Gayle.
‘We are evenly matched. This tour can signal the possibility of us turning the corner. The two teams are evenly matched, and the Test matches will be very vital for us.’
West Indies have not won a Test series in New Zealand in 12 years, and it is their batting which has been the let down in the three series they have contested in that time.
Gayle acknowledged that conditions would be unfamiliar, but he believes the players will have to learn quickly about how to cope.
‘Whatever comes across we have to deal with it,’ he said.
‘The ball will swing and most of us have been playing for sometime now, so we have to use our skill and experience to deal with the New Zealand bowlers. It is nothing new. We just have to face what they send down.’
But Gayle recognises that the Black Caps’ batting too, has been dismal in recent matches and will look to exploit this deficiency, so the bowling department will occupy his mind and the rest of the tour selection committee ahead of the Test.
If the wet conditions that have disrupted the team’s preparations continue, then it will be hard luck for beanpole left-arm spin bowler Sulieman Benn.
West Indies would be inclined to give either Lionel Baker or Kemar Roach their Test debut, alongside the established triumvirate of Jerome Taylor, Fidel Edwards, and Daren Powell.
‘We have quite a few fast bowlers and I trust them to get the job done,’ he said. ‘We will be looking to set the Black Caps back early, and look to move on from there.’
New Zealand will draw confidence from their record against the visitors in Tests since 1999.
They have won five out of seven Tests the two sides have contested in this period to formalise three consecutive series wins.
But they fully understand another series defeat – and to a struggling side like West Indies – will have far-reaching implications.
‘We know what we did over in Australia wasn’t good enough,’ vice-captain Brendon McCullum said.
‘We’ve got high expectations on ourselves to perform and we’re our harshest critics. You get some sprays in the media, but that’s nothing to what you’re feeling within yourself.’
McCullum noted that the Black Caps had learnt a few harsh lessons from their trip across the Trans-Tasman channel, and they hoped to take things out West Indies.
‘The beauty of just playing against Australia is that you are battle-hardened regardless of whether you go down in the manner we did,’ he said.
‘We’ve still come up against the best in the business, so there will be some sort of edge.’
The wicketkeeper/batsman also mentioned that the Black Caps are hoping to prosper from West Indies’ lack of five-day action.
New Zealand have played four Tests in the last two months – including a two-Test series in Bangladesh – and West Indies may be a out of touch having playing their last Test series earlier this year against the Aussies.
New Zealand have played just one Test at University Oval – against Bangladesh in January this year – and won by nine wickets.
The spin bowlers prospered when Otago met Northern Districts in a State Championship match last month.
But Otago Cricket chief executive Ross Dykes believes the surface will be more friendly to the fast- medium bowlers.
‘It’s well-grassed, and hard and I’d suggest has a little more pace than the Bangladesh Test a year ago and maybe a little more bounce,’ he said.
‘But it’s been under cover for close to 48 hours, so it’s sweated and greened up a bit.’
NEW ZEALAND (from) – Daniel Vettori (captain), Daniel Flynn, James Franklin, Mark Gillespie, Jamie How, Brendon McCullum, Tim McIntosh, Iain O’Brien, Jacob Oram, Jeetan Patel, Jesse Ryder, Ross Taylor.
WEST INDIES (from) – Chris Gayle (captain), Ramnaresh Sarwan, Lionel Baker, Carlton Baugh Jr, Sulieman Benn, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Sewnarine Chattergoon, Fidel Edwards, Leon Johnson, Xavier Marshall, Brendan Nash, Daren Powell, Denesh Ramdin, Kemar Roach Jerome Taylor.