SAM BROOKES | 5th May 2020

The latest ICC test rankings were released last week, confirming that there is a new nation sitting at the top of the table. After a difficult 2018, which included the infamous ball-tampering scandal in South Africa, Australia recovered well last year as they retained the Ashes, and their recent rise means that they are now officially the best test side in the world. India had been the team to chase since 2016, but their troubles away from home have resulted in them dropping to third. Separating those two cricketing giants are New Zealand. The Kiwis continue to punch above their weight on the field and are now closing in on top spot. Yet their humbling defeat to Australia at the turn of the year highlighted how they are still far from the finished article.

Having finished runners-up in the last two 50-over World Cups, they are becoming used to the tag of being cricket’s ‘nearly men’. Within touching distance of the summit in the Test rankings, Kane Williamson’s troops will not want to let another opportunity to establish themselves as the best in the world slip away.

Here is how they can overhaul Australia and cement their place in history.

Find an opening partner for Tom Latham

Opening the batting is arguably the most thankless task in Test cricket. With the new ball zipping about, bowlers are often licking their lips at the prospect of some early wickets. Yet a solid first wicket partnership can be crucial in setting the tone of an innings, and ultimately putting the side in a strong position to go on and win the game.

When looking back on some of the best sides from years gone by, many were built on the back of an impressive opening combination. Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden were a dominant pairing for Australia in the 2000s, whilst Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook developed into a formidable duo at the start of the 2010s for England. Right now, New Zealand are still looking for a partnership that can excel. And if the pair they discover to do the job can replicate the aforementioned iconic duos of the past, that’s job done right there.

Tom Latham has been a mainstay at the top of the order in recent years and having already hit 11 centuries in his 52 tests at an average of 42.34, his place appears to be secure. The same cannot be said for his regular partner, Jeet Raval. Since making his debut in 2016, the 31-year-old has only contributed one ton in his 24 matches. His form over the winter was particularly concerning. In seven innings against England and Australia, Raval averaged less than ten, which led to him being dropped for the series against India in February and March. He came up short against the best attacks in the world, and now faces an uphill task to reclaim his place in the side.

Raval has been replaced by Tom Blundell, who has now featured in each of New Zealand’s last four tests. Blundell has just six matches to his name to date, but has notched up two centuries so far, including an unbeaten one on his debut back in 2017. His second came in a battling effort in the second test against Australia in late 2019, indicating that he does have the temperament to last at this level. However, he failed to pass 50 in any of his other three innings during that series, and he made just one half-century when the side hosted India. He needs to find more consistency if he is to become Latham’s long-term partner.

With Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls and BJ Watling taking up the remaining spots in the top six, New Zealand have a strong top order to call upon. Yet their batting line-up was constantly put under pressure when they were trounced by Australia due to losing wickets early on. If either Blundell or Raval can step up, they could potentially have the best batting line-up around.

Plan B: Getting more from their spinners

New Zealand have a wealth of seam bowlers at their disposal, with the likes of Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Tim Southee regularly impressing on the international stage. Lockie Ferguson and Kyle Jamieson also made their debuts in recent series, with the latter taking a five-wicket haul in just his second match.

Overall, the side have a well-rounded attack, but they are missing one key component – a wicket-taking spinner. Mitchell Santner has often been the first-choice option in this department, but he has not taken five wickets in an innings in any of his 22 test matches, and he managed just one wicket in two games in Australia, leading to him being dropped for the India series.

Ish Sodhi has been a consistent performer in New Zealand’s limited-overs side, but he has also struggled in the longer format, snaffling just 41 wickets in his 17 games at an average of just under 50.

The Ultimate Test: The Kiwis spin department has room for improvement

The Kiwis turned to Ajaz Patel for the first test against India, but after he returned wicketless figures, he was dispensed with for the second match of the series. New Zealand went on to dominate that game to wrap up a convincing series win but playing without a spinner moving forward might not be a long-term solution.

The team have relied on their seam attack for quite some time, with their spinner simply there to try and dry up the runs at the other end. Yet when their fast bowlers were unable to make much of an impact in Australia, they did not appear to have a Plan B, which Tim Paine’s side capitalised on. They need their spinner to apply pressure by taking more wickets in the future, especially if they are to succeed on the sub-continent.

Fine margins

The rankings show just how close the top three sides in the world are to one another. Australia are only one rating point ahead of New Zealand, with India just a solitary rating further back.

Still, after last year’s agonising defeat to England in the World Cup final, New Zealand are fully aware that the finest margins can play a significant role in determining how a side is remembered.

After facing each of the other members of the top four in their last three series, New Zealand claimed two series victories, illustrating that wholesale changes are not required. Led by the outstanding Williamson, who is well on his way to becoming the country’s greatest ever batsman, the Kiwis seem to be heading in the right direction.

Settling on an opening partner for Latham and a spinner to ensure that all areas of the bowling attack are covered would make them the complete package and surely see them finally realise their potential of being the best side in Test cricket.