With just 10 days until the start of an intriguing Test series between England and New Zealand, the two sides couldn’t be approaching the matches from more differing circumstances.
On the face of it, this series has the potential to be extremely close and hard fought, which is certainly a rarity for the early Test series in an English Test summer.
The bookmakers have made England favourites for the series, but this wisdom was called into question even before England’s preparations began to unravel over the past week.
If we start with the on-field circumstances of both sides, it is clear to see that New Zealand have the upper hand. Firstly, they may lay claim that for the first time in their history they have a stronger Test XI than England man for man. They appear to be a complete Test side; a strong leader, solid openers, skilled middle order, world-class keeper, a strong spinner, and blistering seam attack. On paper, this New Zealand side is certainly the best to ever tour this land.
New Zealand enjoyed their finest ever Test year in 2014, as they romped to five Test wins from nine outings. They secured series victories over both West Indies and India, as well as an entirely unexpected draw against Pakistan in the UAE. Their 5-day form could not be any better in the lead-up to this series. They have also continued that confidence into their ODI cricket, as they made an exhilarating run to the World Cup final on the back of pace duo Boult and Southee, and some blistering knocks from skipper Brendon McCullum.
McCullum is the final piece in New Zealand’s jigsaw both on and off the field. With the bat in hand, he is simply one of the most destructive batsmen in world cricket. In recent times he has also managed to convert that belligerent style into the more precious commodity of Test runs. Becoming the first Kiwi to make 1,000 Test runs in a calendar year is no mean feat, yet that is exactly what McCullum did in 2014; all the while leading the side to boot. His captaincy has always attracted attention, and his aggressive nature with the bat has clearly manifested itself with his field places, as well as the manner in which he marshals his troops.
If New Zealand can be characterised with a settled playing XI led by a much loved and innovative skipper, then England are the exact antithesis. The West Indies tour threw up as many new questions as it answered for the England selectors. Whilst the semi-return to form of Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad was a bright spot, as was the continued brilliance of Root, Ballance and Anderson, the make up of the side is far from balanced. Trott was blown away, not just out of the side, but into retirement, and the back-up bowlers also laboured for their wickets. Of course, then there is the spinner question. Has Moeen Ali done enough to convince that he is capable of being England’s leading spinner in an Ashes summer? Or should Adil Rashid have been given a go in the Caribbean to prepare him for the year ahead? There are many questions to be answered as to the makeup-up of England’s final XI, and in this respect they could not be further away from New Zealand.
Whilst McCullum continues to gain plaudits for both his batting and leadership, his opposite number has cut a disconsolate figure on numerous occasions in the last year. A man who is still battling to prove his Test form despite his comeback Test ton, and a man who constantly has the spectre of an ex-player hanging over him. With Pietersen currently on 214* for Surrey as I write, and Peter Moores now relieved of his position, it may just be that he is as close to making his way back as has been since his sacking.
It is shaping up to be a riveting Test series, and one that should hopefully not get overshadowed by the Ashes. For the first time in years, England should be given a proper test in the opening series of the summer (they should have beaten Sri Lanka last summer!), and the calm, settled, and destructive nature of the New Zealand team should certainly take some beating. England need to overcome a lot of problems in the next 10 days if they are to avoid taking a battering at the hand of the most impressive Test side of the last 12 months.
Tomorrow in Part 2, I’ll take a look at the sides recent on-field preparations as well as backroom battle.