Earthquake takes focus, but New Zealand need to deliver in first test
(Reuters) - A massive earthquake that jolted central New Zealand on Monday has taken some of the focus off the beginning of the host country's test cricket season, the first at home since the retirement of former captain Brendon McCullum earlier this year.
Kane Williamson will lead New Zealand against Pakistan in his first test in charge at home on Thursday at 1030 (2130 GMT) at Hagley Oval, the same venue where McCullum signed off with the world's fastest test century and a seven-wicket and series loss to Australia in February.
Since then, Williamson's side have only won two tests, against Zimbabwe in August, and drawn a rain-destroyed match against South Africa before they lost their last four games by hefty margins.
That run of results has meant much of the goodwill the side built up in their run to last year's World Cup final has diminished and the team's performances, albeit in overseas conditions, have been criticised.
"Coming off the back of losses is never nice," Williamson told reporters in Christchurch on Wednesday. "It can be in the back of the mind a little bit and the challenge is getting back on track with what you want to achieve.
"But it's about us as a group, sticking together after some tough series and applying what works for us, and being really positive."
While opener Jeet Raval is expected to make his debut, batsman Ross Taylor and leading pace bowler Tim Southee are the most likely to be under scrutiny during the test after poor performances in 2016.
Apart from a run-fest against Zimbabwe, where Taylor scored 364 runs without being dismissed, he has scored just 92 runs in nine other innings this year at an average of 11.5.
"I think we all want to be making the difference with the bat, and he (Taylor) is no different there," Williamson added.
"He knows the conditions well, he's scored a lot of runs at home, so he will be looking to apply himself as best he can and hopefully make a great contribution tomorrow."
Southee, the leader of New Zealand's attack, has taken just 14 wickets at an average of 46.14 this year, well above his career average of 32.63.
Pakistan have arrived in New Zealand, no doubt with half an eye on their December clash against with an out-of-sorts Australia, where they have never won a series.
Misbah-ul-Haq's side, who were ranked number one in test cricket earlier this year before India took over with their 3-0 win over New Zealand, arrive in form having beaten West Indies in the United Arab Emirates, though the green Hagley Oval wicket may present some challenges.
"It's new conditions and that's the biggest challenge for us," Misbah said ahead of the series opener which might witness rain disruption on the opening day.
"Most of our players have been here before and know the conditions are different from what we are used to, so we need to make sure we bat with discipline, put good scores on the board.
"Then our bowling is very capable of performing well in any conditions."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)