ANALYSIS: The 50-test career of Henry Nicholls is likely to come under the most scrutiny as the Black Caps brains trust eye February’s home series against England.
The left-hander could only tally 53 runs in three innings in Pakistan in the drawn series and should now have Glenn Phillips breathing down his neck for a middle-order place in the 1st XI.
Nicholls has scored just one century in his last 13 tests. In that time, he tallied 504 runs at an average of 24, whittling his test career average down to 37.94 from almost 44 in early 2021.
What could save the 31-year-old for the opening test versus England – a day-night pink-ball encounter at Mount Maunganui’s Bay Oval from February 16-20 – is that he averages 48.02 batting in New Zealand, with seven of his eight test centuries having been scored in this country.
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Phillips has only played a solitary test – against Australia in Sydney in January 2020 – and was behind Nicholls in the pecking order for the two tests in Karachi.
Nicholls and Phillips are both part of the New Zealand squad for upcoming one-day matches against Pakistan and India.
Will Young was in the test squad in Pakistan and deemed surplus to requirements but will remain an option should the hosts want to bolster their batting line-up against England, with the 30-year-old capable of batting anywhere in the top four.
The other major talking point for selector Gavin Larsen and coach Gary Stead is likely to be the approach to spin and an allrounder.
When New Zealand were stunned by Bangladesh at Bay Oval last January, they’d opted for youngster Rachin Ravindra to be their sole spinner and bat at No 7.
That backfired badly when he made 4 and 16 while going wicket-less from 28 overs, in what has turned out to be his most recent test appearance.
Michael Bracewell has assumed that role of late and greatly improved his case with his highest test score (74 not out) in the second innings of the just-completed second-test draw with Pakistan. He followed that up with his best bowling figures of 4-75 as the tourists almost won the series on the final day in Karachi.
If New Zealand opts to play a specialist spinner, Ish Sodhi may have jumped the queue ahead of Ajaz Patel, who did not feature in the side’s four home tests last summer.
The legspinner took 13 wickets at an average of 25.15 in the two matches in Pakistan – compared to Patel’s five scalps at 64.20 – and the thought process may be that if the tourists are going to continue their ultra-aggressive approach with the bat, the hosts may as well play a spinner capable of taking a bunch of wickets.
Veteran left-arm paceman Neil Wagner was dropped for the second test in Pakistan after rarely being required in the first test.
The 36-year-old would normally be struggling for a spot against England on form, but Trent Boult will not feature and Kyle Jamieson is no certainty either.
Free agent Boult, who played in the BBL while the test series was contested in Pakistan, will be part of the new International League T20 competition starting in the United Arab Emirates next week. The final is scheduled to be held just four days before the first test in Mount Maunganui, and Stead has already ruled him out.
Jamieson hasn’t played test cricket – or any domestic matches – since a back injury ruled him out of the second test against England in June. While the seamer is hopeful of a return to the bowling crease this month during the current Super Smash T20 competition, the home test against Sri Lanka in March looks a more realistic target for a possible international return.
While a reprieve for Wagner is likely, it also means a potential test debut for Blair Tickner if the Black Caps go with their usual balance of recent years and play four frontline quicks.
Possible Black Caps test XI to face England: Tom Latham, Devon Conway, Kane Williamson, Glenn Phillips, Daryl Mitchell, Tom Blundell, Michael Bracewell, Tim Southee (captain), Matt Henry, Neil Wagner, Blair Tickner.