Richard Boock - A Kiwi view

The debate over whether it’s more effective to pick specialists openers or makeshifts has not been resolved.

Monday, May 19, 2022
Life's short for a Kiwi opener!

Oh well, four more slip by the wayside, a rookie packs a kitbag and writes a final letter to next-of-kin; a wicket-keeper is named as cover in case his mates might be shot to pieces. Last minute instructions, a visit to the chaplain. Life is short these days for a New Zealand opening batsman.

The most recent to receive his battle orders was Otago right-hander Aaron Redmond; the surprise package of the New Zealand squad in England, and the partner for Jamie How in the first Test at Lord’s. He comes with enthusiastic support from the selectors but with marginal experience in the opening position: in fact, a total of just one domestic season.

The son of Rodney, who scored a century in his only Test appearance for New Zealand in 1973, Redmond - the Second will no doubt be hoping for a longer tenure. So will those who picked him. When it comes to sending away opening batsmen, John Bracewell and company can be forgiven for feeling like those old Battle of Britain commanders; anxiously counting the returning specks on the horizon.

Bracewell has overseen 16 changes to the opening combination since taking charge against Pakistan in the summer of 2003-04. Six different pairings have been used on the past four tours. There have been 11 different batsmen employed, six of whom had previously established their reputations further down the order. That is, they were experimental openers.

Redmond’s selection confirms that no progress has been made over the past four years, a span of 34 Tests. The debate over whether it’s more effective to pick specialists or makeshifts has not been resolved. Part-timers Mathew Sinclair, Stephen Fleming, Hamish Marshall, James Marshall, Peter Fulton and Lou Vincent have fared no worse than dedicated openers Michael Papps, Jamie How, Craig Cumming and Matthew Bell.

The selection of Redmond appeared to signal the end of the line for Bell, Cumming, Papps and Sinclair. In a squad that includes a new, young, face in Daniel Flynn, an unadulterated gamble in Redmond and the unnecessary inclusion of a back-up wicket-keeper (Gareth Hopkins), their omission has an air of finality about it.

There might also be an air of desperation about it, particularly in terms of a selection panel that now appears to be clutching at straws and riding on hunches. At the moment, anyone opening the batting in New Zealand first-class cricket seems in danger of being picked. Concerned mothers, dreading a knock on the door, will soon start locking away their young sons.

As it is, classy wicket-keeper Brendon McCullum, named by Bracewell as his back-up opener for this tour, will know that he’s not quite in the clear yet, at least in terms of carrying the poisoned chalice. Apparently viewed as the next most capable opening batsman in the squad, he will almost certainly be drafted into the role if the incumbents lose all form.

This has happened often enough in the past, and as recently as New Zealand’s three-Test tour to South Africa in 2006. That squad included four potential openers and all four were used, without any degree of success. Hamish Marshall and Fulton played at Centurion; Fulton and Papps were employed at Cape Town, and Papps and How received the nod at Johannesburg.

In England in early summer, with the probability of seam-friendly pitches and the certainty of the long-swinging Duke ball, not to mention a certain left-arm paceman by the name of Ryan Sidebottom, just about anyone could end up opening in the third Test at Nottingham.

Of the discarded, there could be few qualms about the decision to cut Sinclair loose, given his abject form against England and less-than convincing work against Bangladesh. He is unlikely to receive a recall, no matter how impressive his domestic form. His time is up.

The same can probably be said of Bell, although one is loathe writing him off in such a volatile climate. His half-century in the final Test against England in New Zealand always seemed a tenuous case for retention, particularly if there was a better prospect waiting in the wings. That remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that with the inclusion of Redmond and Flynn, the selectors have now shuffled the claims of Cumming and Papps well down the list, leaving the pair facing an enormous task to resurrect their international careers.

Cumming is 32 years-of-age and has averaged 25.94 from 11 Tests. His case is not necessarily terminal. In his favour, the right-hander has made a couple of useful scores against quality attacks, and has been hit in the head less than Papps. Don’t forget John Wright needed 28 Tests – or 48 innings – to lift his average over 30.00.

On the other hand, Papps is unlikely to receive another chance to alter a dire Test average of 16.40. The 28-year-old will continue to score buckets of runs in provincial cricket, and will flourish in all competitions just below international level. But for him, it looks like the end of the road.

For the 28-year-old Redmond, however, the journey has just started, albeit on a horribly familiar note in the first Test. Initially a hopeful leg-spinner, he made the transition to top-order batsman over the past few years a-la Mark Richardson, but only moved up to the opening position at the start of this season.

His Otago coach, Michael Hesson proved remarkably prescient at the start of the summer, when he suggested that Redmond was a dark-horse for higher honours. “Aaron pretty much started his career as an opening batsman, he plays fast bowling really well, picks up the ball very early and plays nice and close to himself – he’s got all the required skills.”

Not surprising, really, when you consider his father’s exploits as an opening batsman on debut against Pakistan at Eden Park. Rodney scored 107 and 56 in his only Test, leaving him with a career average of 81.50. If his son can manage even half of that he will have some profoundly relieved team-mates. Especially, it must be said, those who bat in the middle order.