Is this the best New Zealand Test side of all time?

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'This New Zealand side should be enjoyed while they are around' - Ian Smith (1:26)

The former New Zealand wicketkeeper and now world-renowned commentator explains why New Zealand's current squad is special (1:26)

In 2009, ESPNcricinfo asked a 10-man jury made up of veteran journalists, cricket historians and administrators to pick an all-time New Zealand Test XI. You might accuse the jury of an anti-recency bias, but you still probably would have struggled to add more than one to the two players picked who played primarily after 1990: Daniel Vettori and Shane Bond. Ten years on, New Zealand's Test cricket has thrown up seven bona fide contenders: two all-timers in batsmen Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, two wicketkeepers in Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling, and three of the top-seven wicket-takers for New Zealand in Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner.

That this group of players has been able to put up these big numbers is down in no insignificant part to the number of Tests they have managed to play. Six teams have played more Tests than New Zealand in this decade, but they still have two representatives each in the top-10 batsmen and bowlers. That speaks of continuity and consistency, not out of charity because these players have repaid the faith shown in them.

In the 1980s, for example, 41 players played in New Zealand's 59 Tests; in this decade only 50 players have been required to play their 81 Tests. And this includes super specialists such as Will Somerville, who gets to play only when a third spinner is required in Asia.

If this group of players is playing good enough cricket to stick together for so long, the natural question to ask is whether this is the best New Zealand Test side ever put together? There is no doubt about that status in ODIs, after successive World Cup finals, one of which they didn't even lose.

In Tests, that crowning achievement, something that resonates more popularly, such as a big overseas series win, has eluded them. To narrow down, the team in question is the one that came together towards the end of 2013. Its competitors are the team in the second half of the 1980s and the extremely talented but mercurial sides of late 1990s and early 2000s.

The '80s side had series win in Australia and England to go with two drawn Tests in the West Indies, a rare achievement. The flair side of the 1990s and 2000s had a glorious English summer in which they reached the World Cup semi-final and won a Test series followed by a trip to Australia in which they came extremely close to winning the Tests. This side had all the makings of a consistent world-class unit - a core of Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan, Adam Parore, Chris Cairns, Bond and Vettori promises a lot - but they never managed to play well together for long periods.

That leaves the period of 1984-90 as the only competitor to this post-2013 era for the most successful in New Zealand Test history. There is a lot to recommend either of the sides by. The current side has a higher win-loss ratio - 1.928 to 1.444 in the '80s - but that team lost one in five Tests to this side's one in four. If the 2010s side has lost just two home series in seven years, the '80s group didn't suffer the kind of 3-0 reverses this team did in India.

If overseas results are the holy grail, the two sides are quite similar: the current side has won and lost three more Tests than their predecessors, in an almost identical number of matches. While the '80s team won series in Australia and England, this one has won in the UAE and the West Indies, and drawn in the UAE and Sri Lanka. That team's win in Australia came against a team terribly weakened by the collective retirements of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh.

The determining quality of Test sides is their bowling, and this one clearly has a superior attack. None of them is a Richard Hadlee-like colossus yet, but there is depth in that pace attack, both in style and in personnel. If bowlers such as Matt Henry and Lockie Ferguson sit out, they do not because they are ignored but because they are genuinely unfortunate in being behind Boult, Southee and Wagner. Often the third lead, Wagner has already surpassed Hadlee's second leads: Danny Morrison, Ewen Chatfield and Lance Cairns.

In matches that he played, Hadlee took 39.5% of the wickets New Zealand took. That means, on average, if New Zealand bowled a side out, he had to take four wickets, which would require him to bowl 30 overs at his strike rate of 45 in that period. If Hadlee is bowling 30, you are bowling 100 overs or more every time you bowl a side out. Others who took a high proportion of wickets - Morrison, for example - didn't play enough in that era. Boult, Southee and Wagner take 26%, 24% and 26% respectively of the wickets in matches they play, and they play together regularly.

With the bat, this side has been statistically better than the one in the 1980s. Their bowling averages remain similar over these two periods, but New Zealand have scored five runs more per wicket they lose. The depth in their batting provided by Watling - surely their best-ever Test wicketkeeper-batsman now? - and Colin de Grandhomme is immense. Six of their first-choice XI average in the 40s, which is tough to be beaten by any New Zealand side. Over this period, they have had three batsmen who have scored over 1000 runs at an average of over 50, as against just Martin Crowe in the 1980s. While Williamson does the Crowe-like lifting - 17.9% of the runs in matches he has played to Crowe's 17.3% - the support cast again spreads the rest of the load better than the '80s side.

It leads to more consistency and continuity in selection: the '80s side tried 35 players in 45 Tests, this one has needed only 31 over 51 Tests.

While the eventual results remain similar, the consistency and longevity of this New Zealand team might have already put them ahead in many an estimation. Results seen in the wider context only lend more weight to this argument. The '80s lot were arguably the third-best side in the world at that time, behind the might of West Indies and Pakistan. This team is firmly the No. 2 to India. That there are more performers and less churn makes it likelier for this team to keep succeeding.

That achievement that resonates popularly is missing, though. This summer provides them their opportunities. They have beaten the No. 3 side (England) at home, but sterner tests await. Their bowlers have traditionally struggled on bash-the-surface pitches of Australia, currently ranked No. 5. Then they face the juggernaut of the best Test side in the world, India, at home. Winning one of these two series would quietly solidify this side's claim. Winning both would erase all doubt; if they win both and one of them by a two-match margin, they will also become the No. 1 Test side in the world.

That a big two-thirds of a big Test summer remains big will be a big understatement.

With stats inputs by S Rajesh