What is it about New Zealand and the dawn of new England eras? Perhaps it’s that blend of high quality and low jeopardy – the sense that you’re in for a proper test of your mettle, but without all the off-field noise and distraction that might accompany, say, an Ashes or an India series. It’s a match-up that matters, as has already been demonstrated in the riveting T20 tussle earlier this month, but not so much that you’ll be condemned for all eternity if you make a few mistakes along the way.
Where better, then, for Joe Root and Chris Silverwood to bed into their new captain-coach partnership? The pocket-size coastal venue of Mount Maunganui, with its curious pimple of a hill on the one side and an industrial estate on the other, would not pretend to rival the Gabbatoir or the ‘G for shock-and-awesomeness, but if, in two years’ time, the core of the England players on parade this week can rock up in Australia with battle plans primed, then once again they are likely to look back with gratitude on this friendly rivalry that has been bubbling up over the past few seasons.
After all – and as might have been mentioned a few times since the World Cup final – it was England’s encounters with New Zealand in 2015 that triggered their last great personality transplant, as the coy young things who had been baked to oblivion in the Cake Tin that February were encouraged a few months later to throw a few shapes and see what they might be capable of if they shed their inhibitions. A fair bit, as it transpired …
The challenge on this trip, however, may be to rediscover the joys of decorum, for England have made more than a few mistakes where New Zealand are concerned in recent Test encounters. They haven’t won a Test match in the country in six attempts since 2008 – and even then they had to come back from 1-0 down to win the series 2-1. And in their last-but-one encounter at Auckland in 2018, England were lucky to make it to 58 all out, after Trent Boult and Tim Southee had reduced them to a record-threatening 27 for 9 on the first morning of the series.
Throw in the battering-ram attributes of the effervescent Neil Wagner, alongside Colin de Grandhomme’s wobbly wiles and Mitchell Santner’s angular spin, with Lockie Ferguson’s already-familiar rapidity lurking on the fringes, and it’s clear that New Zealand, once again, come armed with an attack that most sides in the world would be grateful to call their own.
And that’s before we factor in the jewel in the Kiwi crown, the returning Kane Williamson, the imperturbable barometer of their batting fortunes – a man who has racked up two centuries in his last four Tests against England (as well as two ducks, remarkably), and whom Jofra Archer this week warned may be every bit as hard for England to dislodge as Steve Smith proved to be during the summer’s Ashes. And if that does turn out to be the case, then England’s blank in the NZ wins column isn’t going to be filled in any hurry. Ten wins and one defeat in New Zealand’s past 15 home Test matches suggest a win isn’t really on the cards anyway.
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And talking of lessons learnt in Kiwi encounters of the past, it was on the aforementioned 2008 tour that the oft-maligned Peter Moores made perhaps the single greatest judgement call of his ill-fated tenure as England coach, and chose to jettison the misfiring Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, the fading heroes of the 2005 Ashes, in favour of the rising stars, James Anderson and Stuart Broad – and they’ve not done too badly in the intervening years.
It’s a moot point as to whether New Zealand’s low-key environment assisted England’s tyros on that occasion – certainly Broad has rarely seemed fazed by his surroundings, even if Anderson’s previous overseas unleashings, in such unforgiving venues as Johannesburg (2004) and Brisbane (2006), seemed to suggest that he benefited from a chance to forget the circumstances and focus solely on his skills.
But now, more than a decade later, New Zealand is bound to hold a special place in the memories of at least two more of England’s young bucks, as Dom Sibley braces for his maiden England cap and Ollie Pope, his Surrey academy sidekick, prepares for a recall that will feel every bit like a debut, after the fraught beginnings he experienced against India last year, not to mention the shoulder dislocation that left him sidelined for much of last summer.
Whatever transpires, it promises to be challenging and educational, but above all, good-natured. The personnel may have changed a touch on both sides since July, but the core players on both sides will forever share a special bond after those extraordinary scenes at Lord’s four months ago. Nothing but a bit of blind luck has managed to separate the sides across the 50-over and 20-over formats so far. What price on Test cricket’s third tied Test in the coming weeks?
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand WLWWW
In the spotlight
There’s no getting away from it. Big numbers are expected of Dom Sibley, and for the first time in a long time, “balls faced” will be an acceptable benchmark as England pivot away from the “positive cricket” mantra preached by Trevor Bayliss, in favour of some old-school grit and grind at the top of the order. Sibley’s technique is not among the purest in the game, but then neither is that of his opening partner Rory Burns – let alone Sir Alastair Cook’s, the man whose boots England still need to fill. And like Cook, some of Sibley’s best shots are those that he chooses not to play. If he’s leaving the ball well, everything else falls into place. His stats for Warwickshire in 2019 were immense – 1428 runs at 68.00 with five hundreds. That’ll do nicely.
There’s time enough for Root to reverse his mid-career dip, but where there was once a Big Four among contemporary Test batsmen, there’s now clear daylight between the best and the rest. And with his Player-of-the-Tournament-winning exploits at the World Cup, New Zealand’s captain, Kane Williamson, has cemented his right to be spoken of in the same breath as Virat Kohli and Steve Smith. He was playing Test cricket throughout that improbably bowler-friendly tournament, calibrating every innings to the most minute degree, and gauging exactly how many runs his team needed to be competitive. And even though his home summer has been disrupted by a hip injury that led to his omission for the T20Is, he will surely not have mislaid that calculating mindset. There’ll be no more valuable wicket than his.
New Zealand have resisted handing Ferguson a Test debut – and he has been released for domestic cricket – sticking to the tried and trusted trio of Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Wagner supplemented by Santner’s left-arm spin and de Grandhomme’s medium-paced wobble.
New Zealand: 1 Tom Latham, 2 Jeet Raval, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Henry Nicholls, 6 Colin de Grandhomme, 7 BJ Watling (wk), 8 Mitchell Santner, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Neil Wagner, 11 Trent Boult.
England showed their hand last week with their selection for their first-class warm-up against New Zealand A in Whangarei and Root confirmed the XI. Sibley will debut alongside his fellow Surrey and Whitgift starlet, Sibley, with Pope embedded at No.6, 18 months after his first coming against India. The key selection is Sam Curran’s left-arm seam (and No. 8 thumping) ahead of his fellow allrounder Chris Woakes, whose record with the Kookaburra didn’t give the selectors much reason to consider him. Archer, such a ubiquitous presence for England already, is set to play his first international outside of the UK and Ireland.
England: 1 Rory Burns, 2 Dom Sibley, 3 Joe Denly, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Sam Curran, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Jack Leach, 11 Stuart Broad.
Pitch and conditions
The pitch looked a bit green with more than 24 hours of preparation still to go, but that may just have been a precaution to keep it from drying out in strong winds. Both sides say they expect it to deteriorate a little and offer a bit for spin. Both also reckon it may be tough to get the ball to swing, conventionally or otherwise.
Stats and trivia
This will be Bay Oval’s maiden Test match, and only the 10th first-class fixture to have been played on the ground since its debut in April 2015.
There have been just 10 ODIs at the venue too, including England’s solitary appearance on their last tour in 2018. England won by six wickets with Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler sealing a low-key run-chase.
Since the start of 2018, Tom Latham (65.75), Henry Nicholls (64.35) and Kane Williamson (63.26) all average over 60. Between them they have made 11 centuries and 10 fifties in 11 Test appearances.
For all that he has been a fixture on the global T20 circuit for the last few years, with gigs in venues as far-flung as Hove, Khulna, Hobart and Jaipur, Jofra Archer played his first overseas first-class match at Whangarei only last week.
“I’m pretty sure we can’t have a super over in a Test so we should be all right.”
Trent Boult doesn’t have any lingering scars from this year’s prior encounters with England, honest..
“It’s a good chance to see where we’re at and for us as a bowling group to be quite creative and do things slightly differently to how we’ve done it before. And to grow as a side, come up with different ideas of how we’re going to get wickets when it does go flat.”
Joe Root, England’s captain, is ready for a tough test of his team’s character.