Dunedin, New Zealand:The ability of New Zealand's top-order batsmen to overcome a recent history of poor starts may decide a closely contested three-Test cricket series against Pakistan beginning here on Tuesday.
The weakness of the New Zealand top order, prompting revolving door selection policies, has seen the Kiwis drop to seventh on world Test rankings _ one place below Pakistan _ and will remain the biggest issue for the hosts in the coming series.
Tim McIntosh and Martin Guptill will likely open the batting for New Zealand in Dunedin, followed by Daniel Flynn, Ross Taylor, the recalled Peter Fulton and allrounder Grant Elliott. Daniel Vettori, already burdened with the roles of captain, stand-in coach, selector and key bowler, may likely accept additional responsibility and bat up the order.
Left-hander McIntosh, who has played seven Tests since his debut against the West Indies at Dunedin last year, warmed up for the match with an unbeaten 131 for a New Zealand Invitation side against the tourists last week.
Guptill made a century on his one-day international debut for New Zealand last season and has since made six half-centuries in limited-overs internationals but has yet to pass 49 in five Tests.
"Personally, my (Test) results haven't been too flash," Guptill said. "Trying to bat long periods is something I'm working on."
Flynn has averaged 33 through 13 Tests with four half-centuries and, at No. 3, is a key figure in New Zealand's batting lineup.
"My game's good enough to score runs (at Test level) and now I've got to have faith in it and go out and produce it," he said.
Fulton has won a surprise recall to the New Zealand team which has been hard hit by the retirement of Jacob Oram and injury to Jesse Ryder. His domestic form is strong but Fulton has managed only 272 runs at an average of 24.7 in eight previous Tests.
"The last nine to 12 months have obviously been pretty disappointing selection-wise," Fulton said. "I've had time to reassess where I'm at, and Test cricket is where I want to be."
New Zealand selector Mark Greatbatch has acknowledged the challenge facing New Zealand's batsmen.
"Obviously, with Oram retiring and Ryder injured it left some spots open," Greatbatch said. "We've got a lot of work to do in Test cricket and I think it is time we really started competing."
Greatbatch said the South African-born Elliott brings solidity to the New Zealand middle order.
"He is the sort of player we are needing for a bit of glue. Our batting is an area where we need to improve," Greatbatch said. "Peter Fulton is the sort of guy our batting unit needs. The batting is not at the level it needs to be and he has a bit of doggedness about him."
New Zealand has confidence that, if its batsmen can perform, it has the bowling to Test Pakistan. Shane Bond is set to return to Test cricket after a two-year absence to lead the New Zealand attack while Daryl Tuffey might play his first Test in five years.
"(Tuffey) is very strong at the moment," Greatbatch said. "Significantly, of the 66 Test wickets he's taken, 24 have been against Pakistan. It's a team he's done very well against."
Pakistan batsman Faisal Iqbal said a warmup match at Queenstown had helped Pakistan adapt to New Zealand conditions.
"It will take a little bit of time but the three-day game has given enough for everyone to get used to it as bowlers and batsmen," he said.
"Things have started quite well. The guys are doing really hard work and everyone is focused for the series."
New Zealand (from): Daniel Vettori (captain), Tim McIntosh, Martin Guptill, Daniel Flynn, Ross Taylor, Peter Fulton, Grant Elliott, Brendon McCullum, Shane Bond, Iain O'Brien, Daryl Tuffey, Chris Martin, Jeetan Patel.
Pakistan (from): Mohammad Yousuf (captain) Salman Butt, Khurrum Manzoor, Imran Farhat, Shoaib Malik, Fawad Alam, Faisal Iqbal, Kamran Akmal, Danish Kaneria, Saeed Ajmal, Yasir Arafat, Umar Gul, Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Aamir, Abdur Rauf, Umer Akmal, Sarfraz Ahmed.