They say familiarity breeds contempt. If so, then sticking an English cricketer and an Antipodean cricketer in a room come the end of the year should result in a fairly major contre-temps. This year, England will play Test series against New Zealand (away), New Zealand (home), Australia (home) and…yes you’ve guessed it…Australia (away). The first of those series starts next week, and, while the accepted wisdom is that England should win with some comfort, the usual noises of ‘we must treat every match the same…shouldn’t underestimate New Zealand…team more than the sum of its parts…just as important as the Ashes series’ are emanating from the England camp. So are such noises justified?
England played some outstanding cricket in India before Christmas – away teams winning a series in India over the last 30 years are rare beasts – and as such should be full of confidence, especially against a team in turmoil. The sacking of Ross Taylor as captain following the breakdown of his relationship with coach Mike Hesson (sound familiar KP?) appears to have damaged morale. A creditable series draw in Sri Lanka (inspired by Taylor’s batting in the 2nd Test) was followed by their first Test series post-Taylor, a defeat in South Africa. Ordinarily defeat in South Africa would not be too much cause for concern, but the manner of this one (losing both tests by an innings and being skittled for 45 in the first Test) hinted at a team lacking focus and leadership. Taylor has since been recalled for the one-day matches, and is in the squad for the first test, so maybe his re-integration into the side will have the same effect as Kevin Pietersen’s in India. Given the inexperience of much of the rest of the squad, it seems unlikely.
New Zealand’s opening batsmen for the first test will be Peter Fulton, a 34-year-old journeyman who played the last of his 10 Tests in 2009, but who has scored heavily in domestic cricket for the last two seasons, and one of two left-handers – Hamish Rutherford or Tom Latham. Both are the son of a former New Zealand Test player, and neither has played Test cricket before. Both are playing in the 4-day warm-up match before the 1st Test, which effectively makes the game a Test trial for them. It also gives the English bowlers a chance to see whether either player should unduly inconvenience them.
The middle-order is where New Zealand appear to be at their strongest. Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum (who will bat at 5) are all at least perfectly decent Test batsmen, and both Dean Brownlie, and wicket-keeper B-J Watling have scored Test centuries. However, the questions to be asked are: will Taylor be able to put his problems with the team’s coaches to the back of his mind and continue where he left off in Sri Lanka? Will McCullum be able to continue his quite frankly astonishing form of the one-day matches (332 runs off 228 balls in the six matches)? Will Williamson add consistency to his undoubted talent? The answers are probably, unlikely, no.
Daniel Vettori has been around for so long, that his presence is as integral to the New Zealand team as a white fern or a Chris Martin duck, but he is still injured, so the selectors have called up yet another uncapped player for the spinning role in the shape of 32-year-old left-armer Bruce Martin. Not a household name, he is apparently a persistent bowler who has been around for a while and always seems to cause batsmen trouble without ever running through a team. Similar to Shaun Udal being selected to tour India in 2005/6 I would guess. It is said he bowls a little flatter than Vettori, and is an inferior batsman. There is also a suggestion that New Zealand will play 4 seamers and leave Martin out, but, unless the wicket is going to be as green as an environmental conference on St Patrick’s Day, that would leave the attack very unbalanced and Martin will probably play.
As for the seam attack, again it doesn’t look like there will be much to cause England’s batsmen to lose much sleep. Tim Southee has been promising now since his debut on England’s last tour, but has yet to spend enough time off the treatment table to perform with any consistency. Trent Boult is left-arm seamer, seemingly a la Geoff Allott, Shayne O’Connor or James Franklin – that is perfectly decent but unlikely to do any significant damage, and the same could be said about right-armer Doug Bracewell, although he has a match-winning performance against Australia to his credit. If New Zealand do decide to go for 4 seamers, then one of the bowlers from the New Zealand XI playing the England XI will be drafted in, probably either Mark Gillespie or South-African-born Neil Wagner. One can imagine Alastair Cook waking up in a cold sweat having dreamt once again he was staring at Dale Steyn beginning his run-up. One cannot imagine him doing the same for any of the above bowlers.
It would be logical to think that, having put in an almighty performance to win in India, England’s team selection should be simple, but not so. There are question marks over the make-up of the batting line-up, and the identity of the third seamer. Out of the top six, Cook, Trott, Pietersen and Bell are guaranteed to start (although Bell always seems to be a couple of daft dismissals away from being dropped by the press), and you would imagine that both Nick Compton and Joe Root would fill the other two positions. But what about Jonny Bairstow, I hear you cry (my hearing’s exceptionally sharp.) He was left out in India because the selectors at first decided Samit Patel would bring the team better balance, as well as expertise against spin, and then realised belatedly that Joe Root was actually a remarkable player and would most likely thrive. Bairstow has a thrilling 95 against that South African attack to his credit, and seems comfortable against seam bowling. New Zealand have no-one of Kemar Roach’s pace to test his technique against the short ball as happened in his debut series, and he batted well in the first T20. With an eye to the future, he seems a more probable test prospect than Nick Compton, who showed commendable durability but not much else in India. Given that Root has taken to international cricket like a duck encountering the Pacific Ocean, he will almost certainly play the first test, and Compton may well continue given he is the man in possession and the selectors might not want to give Root the added pressure of opening. But I would like to see Bairstow given a chance in an environment where he should thrive.
As for the bowling, Anderson and Finn will play. Despite being marginally less impressive in India than Monty Panesar, Graeme Swann will too – his batting lengthens the tail (provided he bats sensibly) and his enthusiasm and canny cricket brain is invaluable. But who will be the third seamer? The choice is between Stuart Broad, Graham Onions and Chris Woakes. At first glance you would say Broad without hesitation – after all when fit he has been selected for England’s Test team almost invariably since his debut. But his bowling appears to have lost its spark recently – it has been a while since he performed well over a Test series – and he went wicketless in India (although many other seam bowlers have done that before). Chris Woakes is yet to make his Test debut, and would represent a very unexpected choice (almost as outlandish as selecting Joe Root for a crucial last Test in India…oh.) Which leaves Graham Onions. As a wicket-to-wicket bowler who aims for the stumps and relies on small amounts of movement, Onions should find New Zealand very much to his liking. He can tend to overdo the short stuff, and as a result can be expensive, but he always takes wickets. That may sound like an obvious thing for a bowler to do, but, for example when Broad is labouring away and bowling poorly it is hard to see how he might take a wicket. Even when Onions appears to be struggling, he always looks like he could make a breakthrough. As much as I suspect Broad will be selected, I would love Onions to be given a go, as he could turn out to be a matchwinner.
So, what’s the verdict? Based on what I’ve just written, you would say that any self-deprecating noises England may be making are, while sensible and diplomatic, unjustified. Past New Zealand teams, whilst being similarly low on real quality, always had one or two players who could lift their game at the right moment and turn a match on its head (think Richard Hadlee, Chris Cairns, Shane Bond.) Of the current team only Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum have those capabilities and, whilst their batting exploits could provide some excitement, the weakness of the bowling attack means it won’t win games. England should win with comfort.