Will chronic injury kill McCullum's Test future?
New Zealand's Test series against West Indies could define captain Brendon McCullum's future with the aggressive batsman battling a chronic back injury and reports suggesting he is contemplating retirement.
The 32-year-old McCullum returned home early from the tour of Bangladesh to receive treatment on his back, which has bothered him for more than two years.
The Dominion Post reported earlier this week that McCullum had two protruding discs in his back and was suffering from arthritis and taking painkillers to get through games.
The first match of the three-Test series on his home ground at University Oval in Dunedin begins on Tuesday and will be his 80th Test since he made his debut against South Africa in 2004.
Apart from the physical discomforts McCullum faces, the series should define his first year in charge of the team and whether they have moved forward under his leadership.
He was promoted to the captaincy late last year when coach Mike Hesson replaced Ross Taylor, which resulted in a highly embarrassing public relations crisis for New Zealand Cricket.
The former wicketkeeper impressed with his aggressive and inventive tactics against England at home earlier this year and resolute batting that solidified the lower-middle order as the side came within one wicket of sealing a series-clinching victory in the third Test at Eden Park.
Image: Brendon McCullum
Photographs: Joseph Johnson/Getty Images
NZ have failed to win a Test under McCullum
New Zealand, however, have failed to win a Test under McCullum's captaincy though they have drawn five of their nine Tests under his watch, which suggests they are becoming more competitive.
The hosts, however, have not won a Test series against anyone other than Bangladesh or Zimbabwe since they beat the West Indies at home in 2006 and while McCullum has said he is pleased with his side's progress, the fans' patience for positive results is starting to be tested.
Hesson's side do have a handy pace bowling trio in Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner with Doug Bracewell, when fit, a fourth seaming option who could easily be shuffled into the front-line three if required.
Corey Anderson is likely to fill the all-rounder's slot for the series though his bowling has been hampered by a rib injury and the composition of the side could be determined by what kind of pitch is unveiled.
Many are hoping it will offer the bowlers more assistance than the wicket the hosts played England on earlier this year.
West Indies enter the Test series having been hammered by an innings in both matches in India and having only played four Tests in total in 2013.
Image: New Zealand's captain Brendon McCullum
Photographs: Philip Brown/Reuters
Narine could a proven thorn to New Zealand's side
Prior to their series loss in the subcontinent, however, Darren Sammy's side had won six successive Test matches, which began with a two-Test sweep against New Zealand in mid-2012.
The visitors will be hampered by the absence of aggressive opening batsman Chris Gayle, who returned to the Caribbean to receive treatment on a hamstring injury.
Off-spinner Shane Shillingford and part-time spinner Marlon Samuels have also been sidetracked with a visit to Perth to undergo bio-mechanical analysis of their bowling actions after being reported to the International Cricket Council.
Sunil Narine was added to the squad in case either were banned from bowling, with the 25-year-old off-spinner a proven thorn in New Zealand's side.
He has played just five Tests since making his debut against England in 2012 and taken 15 wickets, 12 of those were against New Zealand.
Image: Sunil Narine