Neesham, Benn star on see-saw day
New Zealand 293 (Neesham 78, Craig 46*, Benn 5-93) v West Indies 32 for 0 (Gayle 18*)
Jimmy Neesham occupies the No.6 position for New Zealand. Judging from the evidence in Barbados, he has the potential to bat much higher. The composure he showed while the rest of the middle-order was prised out was remarkable and more importantly much needed to push New Zealand to 293. Hometown boy Sulieman Benn coaxed a dry pitch to lend him turn and bounce in exchange for his steadfast accuracy, but his 5 for 93 lost a little of its shine as the day wound down. Mark Craig proved a thorn again, contributing an unbeaten 46 to remedy a situation that had been 172 for 7.
Chris Gayle and Kraigg Brathwaite survived nine overs till time but they will be wary of being a batsman short. They had opted for a five-man attack, handing a debut to Jason Holder, and would be pleased with their openers' positive display.
West Indies ended a trend of five losses since the start of the year in Port-of-Spain and their new-look side could do with a series win. Benn epitomised that desperation and accounted for a set Kane Williamson, an aggressive Brendon McCullum, BJ Watling whose doggedness is not to be underestimated and Tim Southee, whose penchant for six-hitting could have hurt West Indies.
Benn forced the batsman to play more often than not, a ploy that usually provides dividends when the deck offers a little grip. His high-arm action and strong pivot of the hip helped the ball grip into the pitch. He troubled both Williamson and Ross Taylor despite them looking quite comfortable against the rest of the attack during a smart 74-run partnership for the third wicket. Benn bowled unchanged from lunch until the last over before tea and also contributed in the field with a stunning grab, diving to his right at gully to cut a fluent Taylor short.
Yet for all the threat Benn posed, the other end could not keep up. Neesham was aware of that. His resolve indicated he may have also known New Zealand haven't won a series against a top-eight nation away from home in a decade.
He targeted the seamers - a wayward Jerome Taylor was whipped for 21 off 13 balls. His comfort was no less against spin. Before lunch, he had worked on camping on his back foot unless the bowler was too generous with his flight. However, as his confidence grew he eased down the track to unsettle the status quo. There was turn and bounce available as early as one and a half hours into the Test. But Neesham's intent matched his execution, as 10 fours and a six would suggest.
Neesham's crispness ensured the run-rate hovered around the four-per-over mark and orchestrated a slump in West Indies' body language. They weren't helped by a recalled Shane Shillingford looking off his best. The offspinner struggled to elicit the same kind of help as Benn and was often guilty of bowling too short or too full. West Indies had conceded 122 runs between lunch and tea, but ripped out most of the middle order. The hosts should have been buoyant, when play resumed but sloppy fielding crept into their play. They waited for the tail to roll over and Craig and Neesham exploited that dip in intensity. The duo cultivated 64 runs from 17.2 overs to force some respect to New Zealand's total.
There seems to be a jinx on the opening partnership for New Zealand. Three different combinations have been attempted in the past 15 months, discounting Brendon McCullum's forced promotion in at Port-of-Spain, and only once has the 100-run mark been crossed. A revival was not on the cards as Kemar Roach hit an excellent length. Hamish Rutherford chipped to mid-on and Tom Latham was worked over intelligently - a few balls darting across him and then a full, fast one swerved into his back pad plumb in front of middle. Roach finished with 4 for 61.
Taylor and Williamson were cautious early on, but they were not indifferent towards scoring opportunities. Sixteen fours were hit in the morning session, with the above two contributing 13 of them. Jerome Taylor was the leak - he floated a half-volley that was caressed to the boundary to kick the match off and conceded eight further fours and a six. The discipline that has him at the top of the wicket-taker's chart for the series was absent as he flitted between short and wide and full and on the pads. It was this kind of inconsistency that helped New Zealand to reach so close to 300 and West Indies would want to offset that with the bat tomorrow.