West Indies’ career graph has been on a hike. One can see a steady rise in their performance, but very often they seem to fizzle out after sparks of brilliance. They are still desperately looking for an away series win, and New Zealand is always going to be a tough nut to crack. But nevertheless, this West Indies side has the potential to create a massive upset. At Wellington, for a moment, it almost looked like the West Indies team have arrived only to fizzle out after a promising start to see themselves swimming in troubled waters.
Not many gave them a chance prior to the start of the Test series, but the fact that the young and inexperienced side has been moving in the right direction in the recent times cannot be overlooked. New Zealand, on the other hand, have not played any Test cricket for a while, since March to be precise, which could well give the visiting side an advantage.
The pitch had enough grass on it, and New Zealand decided to bowl first on this surface. West Indies had a mountain to climb on such a grassy surface against the likes of Trent Boult, Matt Henry and Neil Wagner. There was not much of lateral movement with the new ball, but West Indies openers showed some staggering defensive technique and tried to play the ball straight in the V.
Boult was unplayable, but Kieran Powell and Kraigg Brathwaite did well in keeping their wickets intact. Immense hopes started building the way West Indies were counter-attacking, they scored most of their boundaries straight and ensured a cautious, extremely cautious start. Runs dried up, but New Zealand bowlers couldn’t break their focus.
They looked determined and showed good intent early on. Both the openers made the New Zealand bowlers bowl to them and played close to their body, this is also the kind of technique needed on such wickets. There was not a lot of swing nor seam in the first session, which could be surprising on such grassy wickets, but that should not take away any credit from the West Indies openers.
It was game on at Wellington, with the visitors putting up a fight, but soon things changed when New Zealand bowlers changed tactics and unleashed a barrage of short deliveries. From being 59 for no loss, West Indies were bowled out for a modest 134 in the first innings. Their batting collapsed like nine pins against Wagner and Boult. They had no answer whatsoever to their barrage of short-pitched stuff.
Wagner was unstoppable with his intimidating pace and ability to generate that extra bit of bounce from the surface. He ended with figures of 7 for 39, which is also his best figures in red ball cricket. One shouldn’t forget the kind of pressure Trent Boult maintained with the new ball, he bowled maidens at will and didn’t give away any freebies.
It does demand a different set of skills to counter-attack short-pitched deliveries, but West Indies, on this occasion did not portray any. Hooking, defending or pulling the ball away are not the only options to confront bouncers. In Test cricket, a batsman has ample of time, there are other options like ducking or getting away from the trajectory of the ball. But West Indies batsmen kept poking at deliveries, that were directed towards their body. Their weakness was viciously exploited and one shouldn’t be surprised if New Zealand opt for similar technique in the remainder of the series.
Wagner bowled to his strength – short and directed to the batsman’s body, which reaped him fruitful results. After showing immense resistance, Brathwaite was caught at short leg while defending a short delivery directed towards his rib cage from Wagner. Moments before his dismissal, he did top-edged a short delivery over the wicketkeeper for a six, there were signs of discomfort. Few overs later, Boult got the better of Powell with a shorter one.
Shimron Hetmyer carved three elegant boundaries but showed extremely poor technique against a short one. While the dismissals of Shai Hope and Sunil Ambris could be considered slightly unfortunate, but both the deliveries were pitched short. Roston Chase fell into a trap well set by Williamson and Wagner.
West Indies skipper Jason Holder was undone on the very first delivery, which was a yorker. His trigger movement on the back foot suggested that he expected a short delivery too, but Wagner outfoxed him with his guile. The tail was wide open and New Zealand did well in getting rid of it.
New Zealand were well placed at stumps on Day 1 and all set to gain a healthy lead. West Indies need to capitalise on such solid starts and need to bring their best game out in order to put New Zealand on the back foot. As of now, New Zealand have skilfully exploited their weaknesses against the short deliveries and have an upper-hand in the Test. This series could well be a turning point in their Test career, but they need to come out hard and get rid of this habit of collapsing after early promise.