21 Sep 2016

NZ's openers: a test of loyalty

11:05 am on 21 September 2016

By Matt Richens* - @mattrichens

Opinion - The roll call of New Zealand cricket test openers over the last 20 years tells a tale of woe, where loyalty has been traded in for a quick fix - seldom successful.

Change has been the only constant.

For years, who would partner, then replace, Mark Richardson became cricket punters' go-to conversation starter or talkback fodder.

Between 1996 and today 29* openers have been tried and a whopping 49 combinations have marched out to the middle together, usually for at least one batsman to trudge back in soon after.

The merry-go-round of openers has done nothing for the stability of the team, nor its results, and it's no big stretch to link the more stable recent sides with the improved results.

Yet Martin Guptill's inclusion in the test squad and the starting eleven for tomorrow's first test against India in Kanpur remains a talking point and one that fires many people up.

But coach Mike Hesson will stick with him, for the first test at least. And he should. Change for change's sake is foolish, and India is not the place to introduce a debutant when it's not needed.

Martin Guptill.

Black Caps coach Mike Hesson is sticking by Martin Guptill for now. Photo: Photosport

Luke Ronchi's 100 in the warm-up match could see him pushing for a middle order spot and BJ Watling has opened before (who hasn't?) so there are options should Guptill's lull continue - but Hesson and co back Guptill to come right or they wouldn't have taken him in the first place.

That said, even loyalty has its limits.

Between 2000 and 2010, when the opening partner-swapping was at its worst, Hesson was cutting his teeth as Otago Cricket's coaching director.

He would have seen first hand how the chopping and changing just made things worse.

Consistency and loyalty was the call from many back then, as there were more domestic openers who had played for New Zealand floating around than those who hadn't.

Give someone enough time, the fans argued, and they will develop into someone worth holding on to.

It's the All Black way and now it's Hesson and the Black Caps' way.

It worked with Grant Elliott, it's worked with Neil Wagner and it's even worked with Guptill in the one-day internationals.

Tom Latham in action on day three of the first cricket Test against Sri Lanka at University Oval, Dunedin, New Zealand. Saturday 12 December 2015. Copyright photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Tom Latham is the latest in a long line of New Zealand test openers. Photo: Photosport

Shortly before the 2015 Cricket World Cup Guptill's spot in the squad was under serious fire. A few months later he was the tournament's top run scorer.

The 29-year-old is an enigma; he's the world's sixth best ODI batsman, but is hanging on by the skin of his teeth when it comes to test selection.

His hard and fast hands - one-day strengths - too often betray him against the red ball, as does his mind.

Confidence and instinct are crucial when you have a fraction of a second to make a decision.

In the coloured clothing, he oozes confidence, intimidates opposition and he knows his job: see ball, hit ball.

Test opener Guptill has been given the same freedom, but too often looks like a player unsure of exactly how much to commit.

Attacking and hitting the ball hard are his obvious weapons, but getting out like a cowboy in test cricket makes you as popular to the general sporting public as a whinging Australian rugby coach.

While Guptill's form is worthy of close scrutiny, this is a big series for the entire squad.

A loss in the three-test tour could drop New Zealand to seventh in the test rankings, ahead of only a cot-case West Indies side, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Brendon McCullum's tenure is well over, and the warming glow his team earned is fading. A big series loss to cock-sure hosts could extinguish it completely ahead of our first Baz-less home summer since 2001.

*New Zealand's test openers in the last 20 years: Justin Vaughan, Bryan Young, Blair Pocock, Craig Spearman, Nathan Astle, Matt Horne, Matthew Bell, Roger Twose, Gary Stead, Mark Richardson, Mathew Sinclair, Adam Parore, Lou Vincent, Stephen Fleming, Brendon McCullum, Michael Papps, Craig Cumming, James Marshall, Jamie How, Hamish Marshall, Peter Fulton, Aaron Redmond, Tim McIntosh, Martin Guptill, Daniel Flynn, BJ Watling, Rob Nicol, Hamish Rutherford, Tom Latham.

* Matt Richens has been a sports journalist for 10 years. The Christchurch-based sports nut is so red-and-black that his father used to feed him 'Canterbury Toast' - raspberry jam on one side and Marmite on the other. He also still knows all the words to 'Give It A Boot, Robbie'.

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