A battle for the middle (of-the-table) ages

Cricket has gone a bit weird over the last few weeks, as it has a tendency to do on occasion. Mitchell Johnson did alright, Australia did too, then Jonathan Trott flew home from the tour due to a stress related illness.

It’d probably be fair to say that Trott would have been one of the least-guessed-at members of the squad to be suffering from such an ailment: he’s sometimes been viewed upon as a batting automaton, and someone who would seemingly give his left bollock to play for England. But as anyone who has experienced an anxiety, or stress related illness would attest to: these things can just crop up whenever and strike one down completely. My thoughts are with him.

Tonight, the REAL battle of the southern hemisphere begins as New Zealand take on the West Indies in the first Test of their three match series in beautiful, beautiful, beautiful Dunedin (how I pine). As this frying pan Ashes spits, the South Africa-India series bubbles, Pakistan and Sri Lanka get set to roast, and I run out of kitchen-related puns, one could forgive the cricket fan for thinking that this encounter between the sixth and eighth rated Test sides is a lesser priority than these other fixtures.

But I wouldn’t agree, because I’m seemingly that kind of guy.

New Zealand go into this series, somehow without a Test victory all year. After gloriously trashing England in March, New Zealand couldn’t cap that performance off with a win. 0-0, looked good, but getting crushed in South Africa and England didn’t, so it’s been a largely sub-par year. It’s now two years since that glorious Test in Hobart, an epochal victory which seemed set to usher in a new age of Kiwi decentness; but since then, it’s mainly been a stuttering affair, staggering individual performances and matches aside, New Zealand have underperformed: the 0-2 defeat in the Caribbean last summer being perhaps the most disappointing failure.

That series marked the beginning of a run of six consecutive Test victories in a row for the boys in maroon, A RETURN TO THE GLORY DAYS! Well, not quite, as two of these were against a woefully mis-matched and underprepared Zimbabwe; their latest victories came in Bangladesh, which shouldn’t be scoffed at these days (New Zealand looked – in spite of the rain – fairly flat in drawing 0-0 there a few months ago). Destroyed in the ‘Sachin’ Tests, the West Indies looked like the stripper-at-the-party they were probably supposed to play; nonetheless it was disappointing to see such performances from an ever improving side.

This is what makes this series such an intriguing one: these two teams are primarily young ones, with talented players who could invite mimicry and adoration in the future: Kane Williamson (though missing from this Test) is a future Kiwi captain and potentially one of the best batsmen the country may have produced in the modern era; Ish Sodhi is a legspinner, in New Zealand! The likes of Darren Bravo, Kieran Powell, Trent Boult and Aaron Redmond (har de har) could play a hundred Tests, or hit a seminal ton, or bowl a spell remembered throughout the history of the game. Though New Zealand and the West Indies could be considered to be at a low ebb of their cricketing history, there is so much bloody promise, and hey: a Test match is a Test match, there is already too few of them played a year, enjoy it.

The match itself is sure to be an interesting conflict, as the West Indies are probably going to be forced to battle with Arctic winds at some point of the Test. Minus key performers such as Chris Gayle and Kemar Roach, a lot will be expected from their young top order and the infamously inconsistent shoulders of Tino Best. New Zealand’s seam attack looks strong, and the faith shown in Sodhi is lovely. There’s all sorts to be positive about, so bugger the Ashes for a few days, and enjoy a proper tussle.

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