Gary Stead ‘confident’ of Kane Williamson being fit for South Africa Tests

Gary Stead, the New Zealand head coach, is “confident” of captain Kane Williamson recovering in time for the start of the first Test against South Africa on February 4 in Mount Maunganui. Williamson had played just two T20Is in the recent five-match series against Pakistan before he was sidelined with a hamstring injury.

“I’m confident he will be alright,” Stead said. “He’s probably got another day or two before he starts back into training and it was a minor niggle, which is a good thing. So, we didn’t want to aggravate it and didn’t see the point of aggravating it with the important series that are ahead. He’s obviously a key player and we know that and we want to make sure we’ve given him every chance of being available.”

Stead is also hopeful of wicketkeeper-batter Tom Blundell being fit for the Test series opener against South Africa. Blundell has not played for New Zealand since the Napier ODI in December last year. He is currently working his way back from a lower-body injury, and will likely return to action for Wellington Firebirds should they make the Super Smash knockouts.

If Blundell isn’t fit for the Mount Maunganui Test, Cam Fletcher, the Auckland wicketkeeper, or Dane Cleaver, Williamson’s cousin who plays for Central Districts in domestic cricket, could be in line to fill in. Both Fletcher and Cleaver are uncapped in Test cricket.

“It’s something again we’re discussing at the moment: what’re the options if Tom is not right,” Stead said. “If it’s a one-off Test, do you keep it or do you skin it a little bit differently and keep the squad similar. We’ve got different options, but those guys are the key ones at the top of our list.”

Boult could return for Australia T20Is at home

Stead also hinted that Trent Boult, who is now a free agent, could be in the selection frame for the three-match T20I series at home against Australia, which precedes the T20 World Cup in the USA and the Caribbean. But Stead does not see the left-arm quick returning for the Tests against South Africa, especially on the back of no recent first-class experience.

Boult is currently in action for MI Emirates at the ILT20 in the UAE and before that, he was at the Abu Dhabi T10 league with Deccan Gladiators. The ILT20 ends on February 17 in Dubai and New Zealand will face Australia in the first T20I in Wellington on February 21.

“I was texting with him last [Saturday] night actually,” Stead said. “Trent and I are going to have a conversation this week just around the future and what that looks like for him and where it fits for us as well. We’re still to have those, but we will connect this week and will work out. He could be available but I’m not 100% sure.

“Again I will have a conversation with Trent but at the moment, I think probably not. It’s very hard to see how you come from a T20 diet back into Test consideration with no cricket before that.”

In the absence of Boult, New Zealand have cast their selection net far and wide to find new fast bowlers. Stead was pleased with the performance of rookie Ben Sears, who bowled with serious heat and came away with four wickets in two games against Pakistan. Lockie Ferguson, too, impressed against Pakistan after working his way back from injury.

“I think the bowling group has been excellent throughout,” Stead said. “When you think back to the start of the series, we had Sears it in, giving him a bit more exposure at the international level and then him and Lockie have alternated. I think both of them bowled beautifully and right through Southee, Mile and Henry bowled excellent spells and backed up well by Mitch [Mitchell Santner] and Ish [Sodhi] as well. So, I think the bowling has been very good; they’ve been accurate and they’ve been demanding. They’ve put a lot of pressure on Pakistan.”

NZ wary of second-string SA

While South Africa’s senior players will be in action at the SA20, a makeshift Test side will tour New Zealand for two Tests in February, which are part of the World Test Championship (WTC) cycle. The 14-member squad includes just seven capped players, but Stead refused to take them lightly, suggesting their hunger to prove a point could make them a dangerous opposition.

“I can assure you one thing with South Africa – the team they bring here will still have experience and they will be hardened guys who have played quite a bit of first-class cricket,” Stead said. “They will have a point to prove as well – ‘Hey! we should be here’ – and I think that makes them as dangerous as having a full side here. So, we certainly won’t be taking them lightly. We have never beaten them in a Test series ever, so that’s our challenge in front of us.”

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