When the schedule of international cricket this summer was announced, there might have been a feeling that the first tourists, New Zealand, were little more than a warm-up for the main events.
England is hosting the Champions Trophy followed by the little matter of an Ashes series so it could have been perceived that the two Tests against the Kiwis in May mattered not a jot. Well, thanks to their superb efforts at home in March when England barely deserved to end the three-match series level, this supposed hors d’oeuvre, with the first Test at Lord’s on Thursday followed by a clash at Headingley beginning on Friday, 24 May, has become something much more serious
The Black Caps fancy their chances of an upset and are preparing accordingly. Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor arrived earlier than planned from the IPL, Hamish Rutherford is stroking the ball with ease, much as he did for his wonderful 171 on debut against England, and the seam quartet of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Doug Bracewell and Neil Wagner are relishing the spring conditions as much as their English counterparts. And nothing smarts a Kiwi more than being considered inferior to the Australians so they have added incentive as well as the belief earned from their creditable performances at home.
The Kiwis’ first warm-up match against Derbyshire was a valuable win but the damage in the second innings was done by Wagner, an accurate and aggressive left-arm swing bowler. Should they play him as well as Trent Boult, another left-arm seamer? Both are very good but two lefties would make a lot of rough for Graeme Swann to bowl into.
So the likelihood is that only one will play and Bracewell and Southee will need to be on form. Early season conditions in England will help them but the same goes for their English counterparts.
The England batting line-up is weakened. Kevin Pietersen is absent and Nick Compton has yet to play a home Test and, despite his centuries, question marks remain about his ability against the short ball. Joe Root and perhaps Jonny Bairstow will be in the middle order so a lot will depend on the senior men, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell. If New Zealand can make inroads into the batting before any big partnerships emerge, there is a soft underbelly to attack.
But, if they fail to break through, England will accumulate big scores and while “scoreboard pressure” is a dull concept in cricket, it is mighty effective. A team staring at a ledger of 350 feels a lot happier and bats accordingly compared to one seeing 550 on the board despite the obvious irony that the bigger score suggests a much easier and more batsman-friendly pitch. It’s called Test cricket for a reason and some of the sternest examinations are psychological.
For England this is a series of opportunities, the main one being to defeat an opponent ranked six places below them and erase the memory of their insipid efforts in March. Fringe players such as Bairstow and Root can press their cases for the Ashes and Compton has a chance to secure his position as Cook’s partner.
The bowlers will also be keen to impress, as few excelled in March However, to start thinking about Australia would be complacent, something England were accused of in New Zealand and which saw them hanging on for a face-saving draw. Every player should realise the importance of winning both Tests.
The only one with an excuse to look further ahead is Graeme Swann, and only because he is returning from a second elbow operation. The rest have already been warned by New Zealand.