Preview: New Zealand in Zimbabwe

Any touring side that has toured Zimbabwe as of late could be forgiven for taking any easy approach, as their line-up has in the past year has had a mediocre look about it.

The main problem for New Zealand may not necessarily be the opposition on this tour. The squad chosen is arguably the best named since the England tour last year. The difference is that this time everyone is fully fit, notably Shane Bond, Nathan Astle and Daniel Vettori. Selection headaches and competition for places will be just as fierce as the on-field performances, as talkback and forum debates will testify.

Bond’s return signals a renewed edge that New Zealand’s bowling options have lacked of late. He will spearhead the attack, a sight for sore eyes, which means there is no room for Kyle Mills. Providing Bond comes through unscathed, his sheer pace and accuracy should be too much for Zimbabwe, whatever side they put on the park. Although his progress has been steady rather then spectacular, long-term match fitness will be his goal. He has had plenty of bowling in the Emerging Players Tournament, and in the two warm-up matches against Nambia.

James Franklin, with his left-arm variety, and Chris Martin, coming off a six-wicket bag against Sri Lanka, have deserved to retain their positions. In Bond’s prolonged absence, these two have shared the brunt of the attack, and have seemed to benefit as a result of the seniority placed on them in that period.

The top and middle-order batting is where coach John Bracewell will have his biggest dilemma. Captain Stephen Fleming has put his hand up to open since May 2004 in England, as it increases the batting depth and adds to the overall balance of the side. With Hamish Marshall cementing the number 3 position basically overnight, Fleming would theoretically move down to 4. With the injury to Craig Cumming, Lou Vincent moves back into the opening role with James Marshall.

Scott Styris and Nathan Astle are the incumbents at 5 and 6, however Styris and Vincent will effectively compete for the same position when Cumming is fit. The performances of both should make for interesting viewing alone.

The lower order looks strong, with wicket-keeper Brendon McCullum, Vettori and Franklin in particular more than useful.

Zimbabwe’s fortunes rest on veteran all-rounder Heath Streak, batsmen Stuart Carlisle, Craig Wishart and fast bowler Andy Blignaut. Streak’s all-round ability in particular will prove a huge asset to the side, as both the tireless medium-fast spearhead with the ball and a quality lower order batsman.

In Wishart and Carlisle the home side have experience and stroke-play. New left-hand opening batsman Neil Ferreira looks an exciting prospect, replacing Stuart Matsikenyeri in the top order. With captain and wicket-keeper Tatenda Taibu a capable batsman in his own right and courage in spades, there is a new found depth to their batting order.

However, how much the rebellious players’ return will effect team unity is yet to be justified. Andy Flower has commented that Streak has no right to walk back into the side after 18 months in the wilderness, among other players. Zimbabwe will hope that these hurdles will be overcome, just to give New Zealand a contest.

New Zealand: Stephen Fleming (captain), Lou Vincent, James Marshall, Hamish Marshall, Scott Styris, Nathan Astle, Brendon McCullum (wk), Daniel Vettori, James Franklin, Shane Bond, Chris Martin.

Zimbabwe (likely): Tatenda Taibu (captain, wk) Neil Ferreira, Hamilton Masakadza, Dion Ebrahim, Stuart Carlisle, Craig Wishart, Brendan Taylor, Andy Blignaut, Heath Streak (vice-captain), Anthony Ireland, Chris Mpofu, Blessing Mahwire.

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