Now that the New Zealand domestic season – the Plunket Shield, the Ford Trophy, the Garishly Promoted Sickly Series – has drawn to a close, and with Test and one-day squads to tour England named, it’s an appropriate time to sit down and reflect on those who are the ‘nearly-theres’.
Players who, despite not being named in any New Zealand XIs, teams, or squads, are indisputably top-rate cricketers.
I’ve selected one batsman from each province here – it’s left out some very highly regarded names. Daryl Mitchell and Brett Hampton from Northern Districts have missed out, as have Stephen Murdoch of Wellington, Brad Cachopa of Auckland, and Tom Bruce of Central Districts.
Unfortunately, six batsmen – with just one from each province – means some tough calls have to be made.
These six are those I believe most likely to be pushing into New Zealand Test XIs of the future.
AUCKLAND: Jeet Raval (age: 26)
First Class career: 57 matches, 3896 runs, 10 centuries, 41.01 average.
Plunket Shield 2014/15: 10 matches, 876 runs, 2 centuries, 48.66 average.
‘Jeet Raval should be playing for New Zealand’. It’s a claim I’ve been making for some time. Ever since Hamish Rutherford’s initial burst against England trickled off to being laughed at by Ramdin and Shillingford, I’ve seen Raval as the man to take his place.
Of course, that hasn’t eventuated: Fulton was the man sacked, with Tom Latham, Hamish Rutherford and Brendon McCullum sharing turns in the opening slot.
That’s not going to work long-term. Tom Latham has been outstanding so far in his Test career, and appears to have the mental game to go a long way, but finding him a partner has so far been fruitless.
Brendon McCullum only returned to the top as a one-off, while Hamish Rutherford continues to struggle. Rutherford’s talent has so far only been matched by his consistent inability to do the basics. I’ve seen very few openers push at quicks with such hard hands.
Raval, meanwhile, appears to have it all down-pat. A talented batsman, with the mind to go with it, his only flaw is his forgetfulness every so often of where his off-stump is located. A play-and-miss either sees him out or lucky, with the former meaning a start doesn’t kick on, the latter meaning he wakes up and pushes forward.
I feel that the step to Test level would see Raval lift his game further. Hopefully he gets that opportunity in the near future: although it seems Martin Guptill is now ahead of him in the Test stakes too.
NORTHERN DISTRICTS: Joe Carter (age: 22)
First Class career: 18 matches, 1084 runs, 1 century, 33.87 average.
Plunket Shield 2014/15: 9 matches, 410 runs, 1 century, 24.11 average.
Second season blues. It’s a common occurrence, and an affliction which has bitten Joe Carter hard. After an exceptional maiden season, he suffered a crushing return to reality in 2014/15, scoring just 410 runs at 24.11.
Despite that, he remains one of the most gifted batsmen in New Zealand. Although far too quiet and unassuming for his own good, a bit of cockiness in the 22 year old’s game might give him the spark required to kick on and start making the game his own.
His inexperience, and inability to convert starts into hundreds, are his biggest hindrances so far, but he’s shown the capability of making huge scores, as his 187 in a Hawke Cup match against Hamilton a couple of seasons ago showed.
Hopefully both Northern Districts and New Zealand give Carter the time and assistance required for his success. A New Zealand A tour of two under his belt would do Carter the world of good, and give him experience in a variety of conditions. As it his, having being born in England, and having played regular club cricket over there, he’s got an understanding of British conditions on his CV already.
I’ve heard him described as “Another bloody Kane” by a very astute judge, and it’s a fair summation in my eyes.
CENTRAL DISTRICTS: Will Young (age: 22)
First Class career: 29 matches, 1788 runs, 2 centuries, 39.73 average.
Plunket Shield 2014/15: 10 matches, 909 runs, 1 century, 53.47 average.
Will Young is an interesting prospect. An undeniably gifted cricketer, he’s yet to make full use of his talents. A slow start to his First Class career – 879 runs in his first 19 First Class matches – was finally expanded upon this season, being second-top run scorer to Stephen Murdoch, at an average of over 53.
He still has a lot of regions to improve on, especially given that just two of his 13 50-plus scores have been converted into centuries.
But despite scoring just one hundred in 2014/15, the signs are positive for Will Young, and he may manage to get into the New Zealand team in years to come.
WELLINGTON: Tom Blundell (age: 24)
First Class career: 15 matches, 715 runs, 2 centuries, 28.60 average.
Plunket Shield 2014/15: 10 matches, 397 runs, 0 centuries, 24.35 average.
I’m prepared for the criticism I’ll take for this selection.
“How can someone,” I’ll be asked, “with an average of 24 for the season be better than the top Shield run scorer?”
Simple: Stephen Murdoch is 31, no longer a youthful beginner. Michael Pollard, meanwhile, has done no better than Blundell, from far more opportunities.
Blundell, despite his poor statistics, is a player of grace and aesthetic value. That might not be a sure sign of a brilliant future: it’s often the sign of a player who will be beset by self-doubt, unable to cope after waltzing through the age group ranks (see: Ian Bell circa 2005).
But I see a player in Blundell who simply needs time, patience and encouragement. His limited opportunities – just five First Class matches for Wellington up to 2014/15 – have stifled his development. If he’s told his role – be it keeper, specialist batsman, whatever – and gets to stick at it, he’ll be able to reach his peak far quicker.
Some of Jamie Siddon’s methods with youth haven’t been ideal, but hopefully 2015/16 gives Blundell the chance to flourish.
CANTERBURY: Henry Nicholls (age: 23)
First Class career: 32 matches, 1852 runs, 2 centuries, 33.67 average.
Plunket Shield 2014/15: 10 matches, 778 runs, 2 centuries, 43.22 average.
For Canterbury, perseverance paid off with Henry Nicholls. He first played a First Class match for the Cantabs in 2011, but never really settled into a spot in the team.
He continued to receive plenty of opportunities, and it eventually clicked into place. Having not made a First Class century, and just five fifties, before the 2014/15 season, he made two tons and seven more 50+ scores this summer.
It’s an example of brilliant man-management from Canterbury, and a willingness to invest in youth.
If Nicholls can push on and continue the good foot he put forward in 2014/15, he and Canterbury will have set a very good precedent for the other New Zealand associations to follow.
OTAGO: Michael Bracewell (age: 24)
First Class career: 42 matches, 2732 runs, 7 centuries, 40.17 average.
Plunket Shield 2014/15: 10 matches, 726, 2 centuries, 42.70 average.
Perhaps it’s something that should concern Dimitri Mascarenhas and the good folks at Otago Cricket – that Michael Bracewell had almost zero competition to the southern slot in this piece.
Ryan Duffy is the only other potential option, but despite Duffy’s abilities as an accumulator, and apparent bright future as a domestic journeyman, he doesn’t fit the criteria of ‘future NZ player’.
Bracewell would likely make this line up in his own right, however, irrespective of the other options. He hasn’t been a flash in the pan like so many New Zealand domestic batsmen, and has doggedly set about scoring runs for Otago since the 2010/11 season.
He has several major technical flaws, but they haven’t impacted on his success within domestic cricket. With seven centuries, a top score of 190, and an average over 40 for his career, Bracewell has proven himself capable of batting for long times.
And that’s one of the issues with cricket. Technical flaws, no matter how apparent, can be glossed over if the batsman works hard enough. Graeme Smith is a perfect example.
On the flip side, history is littered with technically and aesthetically perfect batsmen who can’t make the transition to the top level.
It looks like Bracewell could be in the first camp, and if so, it won’t be too long before he’s adorned in white clothes and a black cap.