Test preview: New Zealand v Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe make their first foray abroad since their return to Test cricket, while New Zealand look to warm up for bigger fish with a healthy win.

In October last year, then CEO of New Zealand Cricket Justin Vaughan announced that the country had 107,000 registered cricket players. It was a figure that drew little attention, but one which dwarfs the playing numbers of their opponents at the time, Zimbabwe.

Although the African nation has nearly three times the population of New Zealand, it's a wonder that they can compete to the extent that November's Test very nearly went their way.

Zimbabwe Cricket hasn't released their own playing numbers but it's not difficult to do some rough estimates. Around 120 players in the franchise system are to some degree professional, which is a tiny number from which to draw a Test team, and the collapse of club cricket and the Country Districts system means there are even fewer resources to draw on than there were in the 'glory' days of the 1990s.

It would be a surprise if, even with schoolkids taken into account, there are more than 10,000 cricketers in Zimbabwe. It's why New Zealand can be dark horses but Zimbabwe must always be underdogs.

Of all the encouraging signs shown in their first season back in Test cricket, the most important was a change in attitude. Suddenly there was a realisation that underdogs are allowed to win on their day, and did not have to be content with pushing other sides close. It manifested itself in a record chase to beat New Zealand in the third ODI, but fell just short in the Test match that followed.

This year Zimbabwe have the opportunity to take it a step further, and a trip to New Zealand is the perfect challenge as they embark on their first foray away from home comforts. The Black Caps are big favourites, but that title did little for them in November when their fear of losing was tangible in the nervous sledging in the final two sessions.

The hosts have beaten Australia since then and acquired a new confidence, and they'll be eager to use this match as a warm-up for the South Africa series which follows. Since that November Test they have dismissed Reece Young and handed the gloves to BJ Watling, who kept well enough in the warm-up to fight off the intentions of Kruger van Wyk. Jesse Ryder's absence allows Kane Williamson a chance at first drop.

The job of Zimbabwe's selectors has been made easier by a number of injuries. Ray Price's groin injury means that Graeme Cremer will make his Test debut after missing last year's games following knee surgery, while Keegan Meth's magnetic attraction to cricket balls has apparently put him on crutches after he was hit during net practice.

That means that Shingirai Masakadza will also debut, and spares the selectors a tough call over Elton Chigumbura, who struggled for form in the warm-up.

Malcolm Waller was a shoe-in after his performances in the home Test, but Regis Chakabva will also play because Vusi Sibanda missed out on selection due to contractual reasons. Hamilton Masakadza has moved up a place and will open alongside Tino Mawoyo.

Seven of the nine Tests played in Napier have ended in draws but all the talk this week has been of a greener surface, so fast bowlers on both sides will be relishing the clash – not least Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis, who have been successful on less helpful decks back home.

In other news, umpire Enamul Hoque Moni will become the first Bangladeshi to officiate in a Test match when he stands alongside Rod Tucker.

<b>Key Men</b><br><i>New Zealand:</i> Tearaway fast bowler <b>Doug Bracewell</b> was man of the match when the teams last met, and has come along in leaps and bounds since then. Most impressive is his ability to take wickets when the pitch flattens out and the match goes quiet, so he could be crucial to breaking partnerships that may develop.

<i>Zimbabwe:</i> Their batting will be weakened by the absence of Vusi Sibanda, and the idea of slotting Regis Chakabva in at number three seems an optimistic one. The onus may well fall on <b>Brendan Taylor</b> at number four, particularly as his recent stint in the HRV Cup has given him extra time to get used to New Zealand conditions.

<b>Last Five Head-To-Head Results</b><BR>November 2011: Only Test: New Zealand won by 34 runs in Bulawayo<br>August 2005: Second Test: New Zealand won by an innings and 46 runs in Bulawayo<br>August 2005: First Test: New Zealand won by an innings and 294 runs in Harare<br>December 200: Only Test: Match drawn in Wellington<br>September 2000: Second Test: New Zealand won by eight wickets in Harare

<b>Prediction</b><BR>The flat wickets in Zimbabwe probably tend to lessen the gap between them and their opponents. <b>New Zealand</b> will surely win the Test, with the margin of victory depending on just how juicy the pitch turns out to be.

Online betting firm <a href='http://www.skybet.com/betting/cricket/c30.html' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><B>Sky Bet</B></a> has New Zealand as favourites in the <a href='http://www.skybet.com/betting/cricket/c30.html' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><B>betting</B></a> for victory in the fourth Test. Visit Sky Bet for the latest cricket betting.

<b>Probable Teams</b><br><i>New Zealand:</i> Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor (capt), Dean Brownlie, BJ Watling (wk), Daniel Vettori, Doug Bracewell, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Chris Martin .

<i>Zimbabwe:</i> Tino Mawoyo, Hamilton Masakadza, Regis Chakabva, Brendan Taylor (capt), Tatenda Taibu, Malcolm Waller, Elton Chigumbura, Graeme Cremer, Shingirai Masakadza, Kyle Jarvis, Brian Vitori.

<b>Dates:</b> 26-30 January <br><b>Morning session:</b> 10:30 – 12:30 (21:30 – 23:30 GMT previous day)<br><b>Afternoon session:</b> 13:10- 15:10 (00:10 – 02:10 GMT)<br><b>Evening session:</b> 15:30 – 17:30 (02:30 – 04:30 GMT)

<b>On-field umpires:</b> Rod Tucker and Enamul Hoque Moni<br><b>Third umpire:</b> Nigel Llong<br><b>Match referee:</b> David Boon

<b>Tristan Holme</b>