Cricket Corner: Trans-Tasman Tests, India's good problem & a new world record

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Cricket Corner: Trans-Tasman Tests, India's good problem & a new world record
Australian captain Pat Cummins (L) and New Zealand skipper Tim Southee pose with the trophy ahead of the two-Test series
Australian captain Pat Cummins (L) and New Zealand skipper Tim Southee pose with the trophy ahead of the two-Test series
AFP
In this weekly feature, Flashscore's Pat Dempsey brings together some of the leading talking points from the increasingly sprawling universe of the world's second-most watched sport.

In a nod to the longest form of the game - Test cricket - the article is broken into three sections to mirror the main intervals in a day’s play: Lunch - the main course; Tea - something extra; and Stumps (the end of play) - something to ponder over a few drinks at the bar.

Lunch: Big brother, little brother

After three Twenty20 (T20) matches (all won by Australia), New Zealand will host their antipodean frenemies in two Tests, starting Thursday in Wellington. Despite their proximity, these trans-Tasman rivals have faced off relatively irregularly in Test series in recent years and, sadly, most of those have been merely two-match contests like this one. For a long time, Australia were the far superior side of the two but New Zealand have risen to the elite across formats in the last decade. First asserting themselves as a major force in white-ball cricket, New Zealand later claimed the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) in 2021, underlining their credentials as a serious red-ball side in the contemporary era.

The Black Caps, however, haven’t been able to produce their best cricket against their southern big brothers in the longest form of the game. In the last two decades, the two have played eight series - New Zealand didn’t win a single one of those and only managed a solitary victory across the 19 matches. The last time New Zealand won a series against Australia was way back in the 1989/1990 season - it was a one-off Test. Suffice it to say, the Kiwis have a point to prove against their nearest neighbours.

The hosts will have to do without veteran quick Neil Wagner after his surprise retirement this week and fellow left-armer Trent Boult, who is no longer centrally contracted and was not considered for selection. Opener batter Devon Conway (injury) has been ruled out of the first Test but Daryl Mitchell (injury) and talisman Kane Williamson (paternity leave) should be back after missing the T20s. Williamson has been in the form of his life (read more about him here) and if the Black Caps are to beat the current WTC holders in either Wellington or Christchurch (from the 8th of March), he will no doubt be key.

History suggests that the visitors will walk this series but cricket isn’t played in history. More pointedly, Australia haven’t been ‘across the ditch’ for a Test series in eight long years and, since then, New Zealand have risen to new heights. What’s more, while the recent Australian summer only emphasised that the Aussies have one of the all-time great bowling attacks, their top six are facing scrutiny. Specifically, pressure is mounting on Marnus Labuschagne, who averaged less than 35 in 2023 and averages about that this year to date, as well as newly anointed number four Cameron Green, who has just one century in his 26 Tests. Is this the year that the little brother gets their revenge?

Tea: India's good problem

With their recent win in RanchiIndia closed out their home Test series against England with one match to play (3-1). Key to India’s fourth Test win was the impressive contribution of newly-blooded wicketkeeper Dhruv Jurel who was thrown into the mix from the third Test after the selectors lost faith in Srikar Bharat. It’s a bold move to change keepers mid-series in any case but especially so when the incoming man has never played a Test and has less than 20 first-class matches to his name.

The principal reason behind the change was that Bharat hadn’t contributed with the bat sufficiently. Since coming in, Jurel has comprehensively proven that he’s the superior option of the two in that respect, falling just short (90) of what would have been a terrific century in India’s first innings in Ranchi before confidently guiding his side to victory (39*) alongside Shubman Gill in the fourth innings. Just 23, Durel doesn't possess the bulging first-class portfolio of fellow debutants in the series Rajat Patidar and Sarfaraz Khan. Rather, he was selected on talent and he’s shown he has plenty of that in a series that will be long remembered for its breakout stars.

Jurel’s emphatic entrance into the Test arena will be a blow to the hopes of the aforementioned Bharat, who had done a serviceable job with the gloves since first-choice keeper Rishabh Pant (now back in training ahead of the Indian Premier League) left the side following his horrific car crash in late 2022. The same could be said of Ishan Kishan (remember him?), another sublimely talented keeper-bat who also had a short stint in the Test side following Pant’s departure. Based on his batting in Ranchi, Jurel might have a future in the Indian side even once Pant becomes available for selection but it’s getting tricky to squeeze them all in. Let’s not forget Virat Kohli and KL Rahul are yet to return, too. I suppose this is what you call 'a good problem'.

The Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamsala
AFP

India may have won the series but it’s certainly not over. The fifth and final Test starts next Thursday (7th) about 1,400 metres above sea level in the picturesque town of Dharamsala in the Himalayas. A chillier stage than the rest of the series has seen, England might just feel a little more at home up in the seam-friendly mountain venue. But will Ben Stokes' side have the last laugh in this compelling contest or will India's endless supply of talents rub salt into the wounds of Bazball’s first series defeat?

Stumps: Jan Nicol's Loftie-heights

There is a new world record for the fastest century in a men’s T20 international (T20I) and it was set on Tuesday by Namibia’s Jan Nicol Loftie-Eaton against Nepal in the first match of the ongoing tri-series between those two and the Netherlands (held in Nepal). Loftie-Eaton took just 33 balls to reach his century, breaking the previous record by a single delivery. Coincidentally, the man who had previously held the record (34 balls), Kushal Malla, was on the bowling side during the Namibian’s knock.

Loftie-Eaton joins an elite group of players alongside Malla, India’s Rohit Sharma and South Africa’s David Miller to have reached 100 in under 40 balls in a T20I. Aside from those already mentioned, that short list includes a band of players from fringe cricket nations such as Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic. Unlike those latter countries, however, all three sides in the ongoing tri-series in Nepal will be competing at the upcoming T20 World Cup in June in the West Indies and USA. As a result, this series is a critical warm-up event and the last real chance to nail down their game plans.

We touched on the run-up to the T20 World Cup, or rather lack thereof, for the ICC’s full member nations in last week's Cricket Corner but we didn’t have much room for the tournament outsiders - the ICC’s associate members. There will be a whopping nine associate members at the World Cup alongside eleven full members (with Zimbabwe being the only full member that failed to qualify.) The other qualified associates are hosts USA, Canada, Scotland, Papua New Guinea, Uganda and Oman.

At the last two World Cups - the T20 World Cup in 2022 and the 50-over version in 2023 - the Netherlands flew the collective flag of the associate members quite proudly by making the second round in 2022 and mustering a couple of notable upsets in India last year. However, thanks to the structure of this year’s tournament - four pools of five with just two advancing - it will be very difficult for any of the associate sides to progress to the Super 8 stage given that each group contains two or three full members. If they can keep improving and breaking records, however, who knows - maybe one of them might just reach lofty heights in June.

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