New Zealand have taken major steps on the ladder to being considered a top Test team by winning another series in foreign conditions. Their 2-0 sweep in Zimbabwe meant they have only lost two of their last seven away series, which includes a victory in West Indies and a draw in the UAE. This result, coach Mike Hesson explained, is important as they look to improve.
"We know we will only be judged a decent team once we start to do well away from home," Hesson said after their series win in Bulawayo. "We won in West Indies and Sri Lanka, and we are getting better. We were challenged here in Zimbabwe with both bat and ball and India are going to challenge us in a few months' time."
Hesson called different unknown surfaces "a great leveler" and Kane Williamson used the same term when he discussed how touring teams need to take on both the opposition and their conditions.
"Any time you tour away from home, the conditions are so diverse that the challenge is not just playing a different nation, it's having to make big adjustments to your game and your approach as a team," Williamson said. "Those are challenges that are unique to the international game and something every side finds difficult. It's a leveler as well because everyone is most used to their home conditions. So when you go away you have to adapt as quickly as you can and it's not an easy thing."
So how are New Zealand working on being able to adjust their game to match up to changing conditions? "We've got enough experience in the group that players can talk about it," Hesson said. "When we train, we train with a purpose. We've got a group of players that share ideas and learn from each other."
Of New Zealand's current squad, four had played in the Bulawayo Test they won by 34 runs five years ago. It's no surprise then that Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Martin Guptill and BJ Watling were among the top five run-scorers in 2016. They knew the pitch did not allow for quick runs and that they would have to show patience, a word they used with nauseating frequency in the lead-up, to build a total.
The approach paid off. New Zealand posted two scored in excess of 500 and only rushed things in the second innings of the second Test when they needed to set Zimbabwe a total.
The man who accelerated was Taylor, whose eye was in better than anyone else's. "He is in an excellent space. A very calm space and technically, he is playing nicely," Hesson said. "He is training very well and is just making good decision after good decision."
The best decision, though, was made by Neil Wagner. He banged in short ball after short ball on a surface that was not supposed to give him bounce and he stunned Zimbabwe's inexperienced line-up in the first Test. Later, he showed he could work an old ball and find reverse swing, something that will be crucial in the subcontinent.
In doing so, Wagner also kept New Zealand's only seam-bowling allrounder Doug Bracewell out of the side. "Doug is competing with Neil Wagner. With Neil's ability to reverse the ball, that's a role we wanted. We thought Neil was the right one to go with and he had a very good first Test, so he got a second," Hesson explained.
Bracewell, though, will likely come into contention in South Africa, where pitches would be a bit more lively. Test cricket has never been played at either Kingsmead or SuperSport Park in August before, so New Zealand will have to adapt again. Bracewell, Matt Henry and offspinner Mark Craig could come into contention as New Zealand attempt to win a first-ever Test series in South Africa to continue their form on the road.