And so after all the talking, double dealing and flat out fibbing, we come to the first Test of the summer and the beginning of the international season.
When the schedule was put together some years ago, New Zealand must have seemed the ideal opponents to provide a warm up for the main event of the summer. A side with a bit of talent, but no real challenge to England, allowing players to ease back into Test cricket, find a bit of form and then move on to a real challenge. It hasn’t worked out that way.
New Zealand are riding a crest of a wave. A little over two years ago they appeared in meltdown, a new coach had come in – one without any kind of cricketing background in terms of playing incidentally – sacked the captain and the ructions in New Zealand cricket were deep and ongoing. The best batsman was sufficiently hurt and humiliated as to drop out of the side, and the criticism was long and extensive, while the team were humiliated in South Africa. Yet there was talent in the side, and the installation of Brendon McCullum as captain, however clumsily done, did seem at least to show some indications of forward thinking. Ross Taylor returned, with all sides admitting that a lot of work needed to be done to heal the wounds. That this was largely achieved is a credit to everyone involved, and the irony of the difference in terms of how New Zealand have addressed such matters and certain other sides. New Zealand Cricket even had the gall to er, well admit they hadn’t handled things well.
Since the low point of being 45 all out, the team has gone from strength to strength. They had much the better of a 0-0 draw against an England team showing the first signs of the terrified negativity that’s become all too familiar, and although they were comfortably beaten in the return fixture in 2013, that was the last series in which they’ve been defeated. A home win against India was impressive given where they’d come from, while an away win in the West Indies was their first overseas series victory against a top eight side in over a decade.
Perhaps most impressive of all was drawing with Pakistan in the UAE, by no stretch of the imagination an easy place to get a result. Reaching the World Cup final in the 50 over format showcased an attacking, vibrant team unafraid to take risks. They take it into the Test arena too – McCullum might set the tone with his batting, but he is hardly alone.
Not all of the Black Caps batting order is in prime form, and the late arrival of some of the team from the IPL is less than ideal, but they do bat deep and they are dangerous. Martin Guptill for one has a modest Test record, but is pushing hard for inclusion on the back of good form in England this year. Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor are quality players, while Hamish Rutherford has flattered to deceive in his career to date, yet is clearly talented. Yet perhaps the key player may turn out to be the combative wicketkeeper BJ Watling, the antithesis of the flaky player.
It is the bowling where England will be in real danger. Test series in May often prove far too much for visiting sides to handle – precisely why the defeat to Sri Lanka last year was so abject, no matter how some try to pretend it never happened – yet in Trent Boult and Tim Southee the suspicion is that New Zealand have a significant advantage in the new ball stakes.
England have a fairly settled side, which is somewhat surprising given the shenanigans of the last month. Lyth will almost certainly make his debut at the top of the order, and given that the pitch appears the day before to be exceptionally green, it will be challenging conditions in which to make a debut. Despite claims that Cook is somehow in exceptional form on the basis of a century against modest opposition who were also missing their spearhead, the combination of a potent opening attack, cloudy overhead conditions and a damp track will ensure that he is under pressure from the off – not even taking into account his reported actions concerning the composition of the side.
The middle order is one area of solidity in the England team. Ballance, Root and Bell really ought to be a good combination. Bell himself has struggled somewhat since his aestas mirabilis in 2013, despite not looking out of touch. He needs runs.
The bowling looks to be extremely reliant on Anderson. Conditions should suit him down to the ground; the fear in his case is of being overbowled or getting injured. Without Anderson, England really would be in the mire. Broad did look to be returning to some kind of form in the Caribbean – with the ball anyway – and perhaps what he needs more than anything else is overs under his belt. Even so, his pace was patchy at best, and surely he won’t be looking to bang the ball in to the deck in such conditions.
The support seamers are a problem. Although it is a Good Thing to be patient with young players, neither Stokes nor Jordan looked especially penetrative in the West Indies, and it may be that Mark Wood gets the nod. England are casting about for a magic bullet here, and Wood is the latest to solve all difficulties no doubt. But if he is selected, then it should be for both Tests and the first couple against Australia. Like with Lyth, he’s been given something of a hospital pass by being overlooked for any of the Tests last month, and now will have to come in against markedly stronger opposition.
The question of the coach rumbles on, with mixed opinions on whether Gillespie was showing interest in the England job, or indicating that he would politely turn them down. Strauss has let it be known that there is no rush to find a coach, even if it involves going into the Ashes without one. In a sense this is reasonable, taking time to find the right one is a good thing. Yet if there was no rush, why summarily sack Peter Moores with no replacement lined up? It’s more muddled thinking and behaviour.
This is a defining summer for Alastair Cook. Appointing Joe Root to the vice captaincy has signalled that failure this summer will be the end of him as captain. By affirming his position England have effectively served notice on it. Winning is the only way he can survive, and scoring runs is an imperative. It’s the end game, and now it’s up to him.