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Cricket: Test of character for Black Caps

Brendon McCullum. Photo by Getty
Brendon McCullum. Photo by Getty
New Zealand's most significant test match took place 57 years ago at Eden Park. That 190-run win over the West Indies opened the door, the first victory after 26 years' trying. But that was always to be a retrospective view. It was, after all, the first among equals.
The national team was on the board, even though tough years followed. Twelve years later they had added only two more wins.
There have been others loaded with special meaning. Australia at Christchurch in 1974; England at the Basin Reserve four years later; the West Indies in Dunedin in 1980, when no one gave New Zealand a prayer; Headingley in 1983, the first win in England, and that achieved without a solitary wicket from Richard Hadlee.
For different reasons, the third test against England starting at Eden Park today is a huge contest for New Zealand.
Consider the backdrop of the season of discontent, not to mention that the world No2 nation was expected to, at the least, be more dominant than they have been in the two drawn tests of the ANZ international series thus far.
The importance of this test for captain Brendon McCullum, coach Mike Hesson, their team and New Zealand Cricket cannot be overstated.
This season, wretched in so many respects, could end in a way which gives the players and fans reasons to be cheerful for the future.
Since the millennium, only the 2002 threatened players' strike exceeds the vitriolic spat over the dumping of Ross Taylor as captain while on the tour of Sri Lanka in November. The national body and team management took heavy hits for weeks over their handling of the leadership change.
When the news came out, Hesson and, by extension, McCullum were the guys in the black hats.
Then followed a test series in South Africa where the world's No1 team, at the peak of their powers, crushed the No8 team, shorn of four of its leading players, Taylor, Dan Vettori, Tim Southee and Jesse Ryder for a range of reasons, inflicting not just hefty defeats but a degree of embarrassment.
As the players trooped from the pavilion steps to their bus at the end of the first day in Cape Town on which they'd been swept aside for 45, then bowled and fielded poorly, a spectator taunted each player: "What have YOU done today?"
Dark days. From there, they won the ODI series and competed strongly in both limited-overs rubbers against England, taking both to a decider. The first two tests, both weather hit, produced competitive cricket.
Now New Zealand have an opportunity, perhaps surprisingly, to end their summer of discontent in a most unexpected way.
For Hesson, who will most likely never be forgiven by the Taylorites for his treatment of the country's best batsman, a win at Eden Park would be a relief and maybe a hope that it would finally put to bed the rancour of December and January.
McCullum - and for some the suspicion over his part in Taylor's downfall hasn't receded - acknowledged yesterday that this test has plenty riding on it.
"Test cricket is something everyone wants to see you earn the right over a long period to show you're good enough," he said. "For fans and purists they want to see our test game improving and equally we do. That's why this series so far has been really good for us, but we know we're going to be judged by how we finish this test as well."
If New Zealand win it will give "hope and satisfaction that we're heading in the right direction".
"By no means are we the finished product. But we've taken some small steps forward, which is great. It would be fantastic if we can put this result on it as well."
McCullum confirmed that spinner Bruce Martin will definitely play today in a three-one, seam and spin split. Returning seamer Doug Bracewell's case was to be evaluated last night as he'd arrived too late for training yesterday. McCullum said it would be a tough call dropping one of the three incumbents who had performed gamely to date.
With the pitch showing tinges of green, the skipper said bowling first remained his preferred option if he has the choice.
The loss through a knee injury of Kevin Pietersen was a blow for England.
"They've still got good options to come in but they're certainly not KP."
Most likely it will be a sixth test for middle order batsman Jonny Bairstow.
England captain Alastair Cook hopes the wins enjoyed on Eden Park by the T20 and ODI sides will rub off.
"It's great when you come to a ground where you've won in the past," he said. "It doesn't count for anything, but it's nice when you've got good vibes in that dressing room where we've seen victories before."


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