New Zealand’s promising pace attack can resurrect their dwindling Test fortunes

Tim Southee’s swing and underrated bouncers have rattled many top quality batsmen © Getty Images

New Zealand failed to win a game on their tour to Bangladesh. However, Bharath Ramaraj believes that the Kiwis have a promising pace attack to trouble the opposition ranks in the future.

Ever since the all-time great quickie, Sir Richard Hadlee touched numerous heights and helped New Zealand script some famous Test victories in England, Australia and India in the 1980s, the Kiwis have struggled to produce strike bowlers in the pace department.

In fact, New Zealand has largely been let down by a spate of injuries to their pace bowling stocks. Shane Bond, for a brief period, sent shivers down the spine of batsmen with genuine pace and swing, but was fragile. In the late 90s, especially in England in 1999, Chris Cairns and Dion Nash forged a fruitful opening pair, but constant injuries to both of them didn’t help New Zealand’s cause.

A host of other pacers ranging from Simon Doull, Geoff Allott to even towering giants such as Kerry Walmsley and Ian Butler saw their promising careers being blighted by serious injuries. Ironically, the one pacer who consistently delivered at the domestic level with resplendent performances, Andrew Penn and was even relatively injury-free surprisingly didn’t play a single Test for New Zealand.

So, the tireless workhorse, Chris Martin, who hung up his spiked boots in 2013 was forced to step into the shoes of being a strike bowler for many years. As Chris Martin was more of a workhorse, being a strike bowler didn’t come naturally to him. But to his credit, Martin made a good fist of it.

But hope springs the eternal as a young crop of pacers from New Zealand are making waves in the Test arena in recent times.  So, with a bird’s eye-view, the writer intends to analyse New Zealand’s current pace bowling stocks.

When Tim Southee left the beautiful Basin Reserve ground on April 6, 2009, he cut a forlorn figure. Indian batsmen on a good batting track smashed him to shreds and Southee had completely lost his radar.

A little more than four years later though, New Zealand’s star bowler in the under 19 World Cup played in Malaysia in 2008, Southee has transformed himself into a lethal pacer in the international circuit, at least in helpful conditions. In England in 2013, he seemingly had the ball on a string and did whatever he wished to do. The banana-bending swing bowler made the much-vaunted England’s batting line-up dance to his tunes. Even in Sri Lanka and India last year, he showcased his wares as a swing bowler.

Southee also has an underrated bouncer which has troubled some world-class batsmen. The slippery customer surprised the lynchpin of Sri Lanka’s batting line-up, Sangakkara with a well-directed bouncer at Colombo PSS in 2012 and dismissed him. His other victims in recent times to his well-directed bouncers include, Matt Prior and Cheteshwar Pujara.

The credit of transforming Southee to a fine pacer in the Test arena perhaps has to go to former bowling coach of New Zealand — Damien Wright. Under his able guidance, Southee has learnt to set up a batsman, before delivering the coup de grace.

The significant improvement in his bowling can be seen by the fact that in his last 11 Tests, Southee has taken 43 wickets at an impressive average of 26.58. He is still no Dale Steyn or James Anderson to penetrate every crevice in a batsman’s defence at the tilt of a wrist; but definitely someone to watch out for in the years to come.

Southee’s partner-in-crime at Northern Districts and New Zealand, Trent Boult can also generate copious movement in the air and take wickets. He has the added advantage of being a left-armer. Boult’s Test career has already constituted of a few noteworthy crests.  

It was on a good batting track at Auckland in the third Test against England in 2013 that Boult made the cricketing world sit-up and take notice of his burgeoning potential. He bowled a fuller length and more importantly swung the ball late to leave England in tatters in the first innings. He blended insouciance with geometric precision in that innings.

To out-bowl England’s swing-king, James Anderson over an entire series takes some doing and that is what exactly Boult did in the series against England. The only missing link in his armour is perhaps his inability to make the old ball talk.

The 23-year right-arm seamer from Central Districts, Doug Bracewell comes from a rich cricketing legacy. When Bracewell ensnared nine Australian wickets at Hobart in 2011 to take New Zealand to a nerve-wracking historic Test win, it would have made his cricketing family feel proud.

At Hobart, especially in the second innings, Bracewell with a ‘never say die’ competitive spirit bowled like a world-class seamer. When England’s Anderson took 24 wickets Down Under in 2010-11 season, it was believed that he pitched roughly 70% of his deliveries on and around a good length spot. Bracewell too must have bowled a very high percentage of his deliveries on a good length area at Hobart.

Unfortunately, since that heart-stirring performance at Hobart, Bracewell has lost his radar and has struggled for consistency. With stiff competition for the third seamer’s slot, Bracewell needs to raise his game quickly, otherwise he may find himself in the lonely world of wilderness.

The South African born 27-year old left-arm seamer, Neil Wagner too has bowled some fine spells in recent times. He took 4 for 42 against England on a good batting track at Dunedin in 2013. In the recently-concluded Test series against Bangladesh, he picked up a five-for on a featherbed at Dhaka.

Wagner’s bowling isn’t gift-wrapped with heavy dollops of range of skills. But he more than makes it up by bowling with a great heart. In spite of not being in the quick bracket, Wagner is never afraid of giving a taste of chin music to batsmen.

At the age of 34, Mark Gillespie is no more a spring chicken, but when fit, he can still be a wicket-taking threat for New Zealand. The last time he played for New Zealand against South Africa in 2012 Test series at home, he showcased his ability to land blows at opposition ranks with a red cherry in hand by taking a five-for at Hamilton. The bustling pacer in many ways reminds the writer of Dion Nash.

However, Gillespie’s career has been curtailed with a spate of injuries. Yet, with Bracewell struggling for consistency, he may still play a few more Tests for New Zealand.

The 27-year old tall quickie, Mitchell McClenaghan is the latest to roll out of, what seems like a never-ending assembly line of left-arm pacers from the stables of New Zealand’s cricket. He has already made a great impact in the one-day format by taking 31 wickets at a wondrous average of 19.19 in a mere 12 games.
 McClenaghan is an aggressive pacer who can swing the new ball and hit the deck hard as well. He also outfoxes the batsmen with clever changes off pace. Interestingly, his First-Class record is very modest. New Zealand selectors can only hope that he can hone his skills in First-Class cricket and won’t suffer another back injury like it happened to him a few years ago.

The 21-year old lanky seamer, Adam Milne has won fulsome praises for his ability to generate slithery speed in domestic cricket. But New Zealand’s think-tank seems to be carefully managing his workload, as he has been let down by injuries.

Despite their lack of success on flat decks of Bangladesh, New Zealand has a fine bunch of promising Test bowlers. When India embarks on a tour to New Zealand in January, they better not underestimate New Zealand’s seam attack.  

(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)