Without a feasible option to replace Jeet Raval for Boxing Day, New Zealand have backed themselves into a corner before their biggest Test match in years.
Raval made two scores of only one run in Perth, continuing a poor stretch of form that has seen him surpass five just twice in his last nine Test innings.
A solid opener with a good technique, he is going through a rough period at the top of the order and according to former Black Caps batting coach Craig McMillan, selectors have no choice but to swing the axe.
“You drop him because playing him again would be cruel. It would actually be silly,” he said.
But discussions at the selection table may not be so straightforward given that the Kiwis have no one to replace him with. Their only batting cover comes in the form of wicketkeeper Tom Blundell, who has batted at number eight in his only two Tests, and currently bats at five for his domestic side Wellington. Throwing him in to face a likely new ball trio of Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins is equally cruel as retaining Raval.
Some argue they have nothing to lose given Raval’s current form, but it’s hardly an enticing option.
This predicament could have been foreseen, and a top-order contingency plan should have been in place to cover for Raval, who has been struggling for some time. His three domestic innings before the recent England series reaped scores of just 7, 3 and 14. Given his struggles of late, it was little surprise he failed on a fast deck against the best pace attack in the world. He looked “out of his depth” according to Ricky Ponting.
Raval not only exposes his side to being one wicket down early in the Melbourne Test, but also opens the door for Australia to bowl at Kane Williamson with the new Kookaburra. As we’ve seen in recent years, MCG wickets become exponentially easier to bat on once the ball softens, so an early chance to dismiss the world’s third-ranked Test batsmen – and the Black Caps’ key hope with the bat – puts them under enormous pressure.
New Zealand have hinted there was no obvious replacement for Raval. The injured Will Young, who scored two hundreds and a fifty against Australia in three World Cup warm-up games in March, would have been the man had he been fit. But it begs the question as to why the selectors picked just five specialist batsmen in their 15-man squad for the Australia tour. Another top-order pick, even in the absence of a stand-out option, was a must given Raval’s vulnerability. By contrast, they picked seven bowlers.
The other move the Black Caps could make for Boxing Day is to insert Blundell into his favoured spot in the middle order and promote BJ Watling or even Henry Nicholls to open. Watling is in the best form of his career, but given he hasn’t opened at Test level in over seven years, they might risk upsetting that current form. Nicholls has also enjoyed a prolific 12 months at number five and has never opened at Test level. He did, however, open the batting during this year’s World Cup.
The options are thin for a side ranked number two in the world. McMillan said it was too risky to change two or three positions and as a result, their only option was a straight swap of Blundell for Raval.
“In an ideal world when you are touring Australia you like to have a reserve opening batsman,” he said.
“New Zealand haven’t done that and probably don’t have many options in terms of that at the moment. It might be a stop gap for two Test matches but it’s an opportunity for someone else and you never know what might happen.”