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New Zealand's wholesale changes show immense strength in depth

Written by 
Published in Cricket
Thursday, 10 June 2021 11:44
New Zealand have never previously made six changes to their side within a series and that they did so at Edgbaston and still managed to take seven wickets after being asked to bowl on a flat pitch was evidence of two things: firstly, unprecedented strength in depth within their Test squad, and secondly, the extent of the World Test Championship's impact on international cricket.
Tom Latham, their stand-in captain, insisted in his pre-match press conference that beating England was "higher on our priority list" than the WTC final, but that he was saying it in the first place was proof of the inverse: Kane Williamson was ruled out through elbow pain here but would surely be risked against India if he suffered the same ailment next week.
Tim Southee, Kyle Jamieson and Colin de Grandhomme were all rotated out to manage their workloads ahead of the same fixture, and while BJ Watling's stiff back and Mitchell Santner's cut finger might well have caused them to miss out under any circumstances, the presence of ready-made replacements in Tom Blundell and Ajaz Patel and Trent Boult's return meant only a limited drop-off in the quality of New Zealand's side.
It has been clear for some time that the notion of teams knowing their 'best XI' is anachronistic in this era of international cricket but in the Covid era of enlarged squads, bubble fatigue, variety in conditions and a punishing schedule, squad depth is more relevant than ever. India proved as much during their improbable series win in Australia at the start of this year, and with New Zealand fielding 17 players across these two Tests, they are showing that the era of "Hadlee at one end, Ilford seconds at the other" is long gone.
The only time a team has used more than that in a two-match series was when Sri Lanka rested seven players after an innings-and-196-run win against a struggling Bangladesh in 2002, which led Sanath Jayasuriya to complain he had never seen some of his new side before and drew the disapproval of the government's sports minister - though they still won the second Test by 288 runs.
It is no great surprise that depth at times has been an issue in a country of only five million people. In early 2020, injuries and illness forced them to make five changes for the third Test against Australia in Sydney; the result was a 279-run hammering to confirm a 3-0 series defeat, which seemed to confirm their over-reliance on a small core of senior players.
But in the 18 months since, they have made strides forwards: Jamieson, Daryl Mitchell and Devon Conway have made fine starts to their respective careers, Blundell looks ready to take the gloves full-time once Watling retires, and Patel and Matt Henry have slotted in without fuss. The true test of depth will come tomorrow, when a batting line-up shorn of its linchpin comes up against England's four seamers, but on a dry pitch with few obvious demons, it would be no surprise if they took a lead into the third day.
"We knew there were some [injury] doubts, and we obviously always fall back on our squad," Henry said at the close. "We've got a big squad here and everyone seems to have a good understanding of where they sit and experience as well. As a squad, we're pretty confident and happy with what we have in the sheds. That's what's been the foundation of this squad: that depth, and trusting that when you come in, you know what your role is."
It was Patel who made the strongest case for retention in next week's final on the first day, though Henry bowled better than his figures suggested - in keeping with the rest of his Test career - and Mitchell nagged away tirelessly on a length. While England had opted not to field a frontline spinner for the second Test in a row - and the fifth time since Chris Silverwood became head coach in late 2019 - Patel showed the benefits of picking one, providing the control that had eluded Santner at Lord's as he conceded only 2.42 runs an over in a holding role.
He made two important breakthroughs, too, ending stands of 42 and 47 when Ollie Pope edged behind and Olly Stone was pinned lbw on the sweep. Pitches at the Ageas Bowl are more spin-friendly than in the majority of England, and with India's line-up dominated by right-handers, Patel's ability to turn the ball away from the bat makes him a more persuasive option than a fifth seamer in next week's final.
Furthermore, New Zealand's willingness to make changes demonstrated the transformative effect that the WTC has had on Test cricket - for better or for worse. This series - which is not part of the Championship - has always been unusual, a late addition to an already-crowded schedule to thank broadcasters and host venues and provide New Zealand with preparation ahead of next week's final, but the meeting of sides ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in the world can rarely have felt so much like a support act.
With England's multi-format players missing and New Zealand happy to rotate ahead of the main event, the fact there are no points at stake seems to have taken something away, even with a 17,000-strong Edgbaston crowd adding to the spectacle on Thursday. Much of the criticism of England's final-day go-slow at Lord's rested on the point that there was nothing to lose: while the WTC's first cycle has struggled to spark much enthusiasm, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is shaping teams' approaches.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

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