Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls and Colin de Grandhomme may be New Zealand’s fresh batting stars but veterans Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor remain the key to the Kiwis ending their Test drought in Australia.
For years Williamson and Taylor held together a rickety New Zealand Test batting line-up. Now, over the past two years, they have shouldered a far lighter burden thanks to the emergence of Latham, Nicholls and De Grandhomme and the consistent input of elite wicketkeeper-batsman BJ Watling.
In that time New Zealand have become the second most consistent batting unit in the world after powerhouse India.
Six of their current top seven average 40-plus in Test cricket. Meanwhile five Kiwis are ranked in the top 16 batsmen in the world – Williamson (third), Nicholls (9th), Latham (12th), Watling (14th) and Taylor (16th).
The other two members of their top seven play greatly different but highly valuable roles. Scoring at a lightning strike rate of 87 across his Test career, De Grandhomme is equally comfortable either counterattacking when New Zealand are faltering or piling on the pain when they’re on top.
Batting at seven behind Watling, De Grandhomme averages 40 with the bat.
Then there’s snail-paced Jeet Raval, an old-school opener whose sole focus is on blunting the new ball and batting for time. While Raval’s Test average of 32 looks poor, he has actually executed this task well, soaking up 76 balls per dismissal across his career.
That means Raval bats for significantly longer per dismissal than Australian openers Joe Burns (68 balls) or David Warner (66 balls).
Given the strength New Zealand possess from three through to seven in their batting order, Raval’s ability to take the shine off the ball is greatly underrated.
At three and four in the order are Williamson and Taylor, who for all the understandable excitement around Latham and Nicholls remain the heart of this Kiwi batting line-up.
As I wrote yesterday, Latham and Nicholls may have excellent Test records but still remain relatively unproven against the three strongest bowling teams of India, South Africa and Australia.
Latham averages 24 against those sides from 14 Tests, while Nicholls averages 29 from his eight matches against them. For Latham and Nicholls personal success against Australia is something they are yet to experience.
Given that playing in Australia is widely considered the ultimate challenge for any New Zealand Test cricketer, doubts will likely linger in the minds of that pair until they finally shine against the Aussies.
No such mental hurdles exist for Williamson and Taylor. They have been there and done that. Taylor might only be New Zealand’s fifth-highest ranked Test batsman, but don’t be fooled – he remains the second most influential member of their top six after Williamson.
Not only is Taylor easily the Kiwis’ most experienced Test cricketer, with 96 matches to his name, he also has a good away record, with 3421 runs at 40 outside New Zealand. Most importantly, with this blockbuster trans-Tasman series in mind, Taylor has been terrific against Australia, with 847 runs at 50.
Taylor’s versatility makes him the perfect No. 4. As New Zealand’s top order collapsed so frequently in the first two-thirds of his Test career, Taylor is accustomed to rebuilding an innings.
Yet he’s also a naturally aggressive strokemaker who is very comfortable going after the bowlers.
New Zealand will hope that Taylor is frequently coming in at two-for-plenty against Australia so he can indulge those attacking instincts. They’ll also feel comfort, however, due to Taylor’s steady presence at No. 4 in the event of early wickets.
As good a player as Taylor is, Williamson is the man who will worry Australia most. Never in the past decade have I seen a visiting Test batsman look better than Williamson did on NZ’s last tour. His numbers were exceptional – 428 runs at 86, including two tons.
Yet it was the silken manner in which Williamson churned out those runs that has stuck so firmly in my memory. Late swing, extreme pace, steep bounce, quality spin bowling – nothing fazed him.
It is rare that a batsman looks so completely secure while scoring at such a rapid rate, with Williamson maintaining a dashing strike rate of 67 in that series. The Kiwi was just 25 years old at that point and, entering into that series, was not yet a bonafide superstar of Test cricket.
Four years on he is neck and neck with Virat Kohli as the world’s second best Test batsman after Australian Steve Smith. Since the start of 2014 Williamson has churned out 4528 runs at 65, including a whopping 17 tons from just 47 Tests.
His record away from home in that time is especially phenomenal, with an average of 63 and no less than eight tons from 22 Tests. Now Williamson has a rare opportunity to perform on centre stage in a massive series the entire cricketing world will be watching closely.
For New Zealand to finally win their first Test series in Australia in more than 30 years they will have to soak up a huge amount of pressure. No-one is better equipped to do that than their ice-cold captain Williamson and their vastly experienced ex-captain Taylor.