New Zealand vs England, 1st Test – Friendly rivalry promises lots of fire but weather might call the shots

New Zealand vs England, 1st Test - Friendly rivalry promises lots of fire but weather might call the shots

Big picture: Tim Southee, Ben Stokes, and friendly fire

As the New Zealand government declared only the third state of emergency in the country’s history because of Cyclone Gabrielle, the sun shone between intermittent bouts of rain in Mount Maunganui.

The site of the first Test between New Zealand and England sits slap-bang in the middle of the Bay of Plenty, one of the six regions covered by the declaration signed at 8.43am by the minister for emergency management, Kieran McAnulty. Yet, conditions allowed the teams to train in the outdoors at Bay Oval, though nets took place in the greenhouse-like indoor area just off the main field.

The way in which both teams have adapted to ever-changing conditions seemed to sum up the feeling going into this series between familiar opponents. And yet, while stranded New Zealand players were able to join the main squad two days out from the start of the first Test, their preparations were thrown a curveball with another stress fracture for Kyle Jamieson and the impending birth of Matt Henry’s second child. Nature, one way or another, finds a way.

Combined with the loss of Trent Boult to franchise cricket, there is a quiet sense of dismay that this first Test of the New Zealand summer is coming around with a bit-part bowling attack and inclement weather. Tim Southee, new in the big chair, might already be lamenting the stress Kane Williamson left.

Ticket demands for the day-nighter starting Thursday have been strong, heartening given this was a return to unrestricted crowds after the Covid-19 restrictions in place for the 2021-22 season. But now, there is a nagging sense this match and series could underwhelm.

England would feel responsible for making sure that’s not the case, of course, certainly given the prospect of limited playing time in Mount Maunganui, depending on which forecast you believe. After all the revelry of cliff-jumping, golf and barbecues punctuated by cricket, they have switched back on to training hard and spreading the word of the cleansing power of going at 4.77 an over.

England panned the pink Kookaburra ball verbally, ahead of maybe doing the same physically. “This pink ball, in these conditions, might be suited to going harder even,” opener Ben Duckett said, and you could see his point. The only problem may be a pitch that only saw the light of day on Tuesday and looked exceptionally green, which is no surprise given the howling winds and rains over the last few days that have prevented the groundstaff from even waving at the surface. Wednesday should allow for some work to go into it.

There has been idle chat about forfeiting an innings, which is exactly the kind of pub fare that England are all about. And Southee, as per Brendon McCullum’s estimation, is always willing to push the game on and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this turns into a friendly captaincy duel with Stokes. These two disciples of Baz haven’t made their names by taking backward steps.

The pair even hung out during the Hamilton warm-up match when Southee finished a bowling spell and Stokes was chilling on the sidelines. No cricket was discussed, merely catching up and reminiscing about past interactions. The T20 World Cup last October, the previous series between them last June – they did not need to root through the memory bank for particularly long. As far as Test series go, there aren’t many as friendly as this. But make no mistake – the product on the field will be the better for it.

Form guide

New Zealand DDLLL (last five Tests, most recent first)
England WWWWW

In the spotlight: Neil Wagner and Ben Duckett

At 36, Neil Wagner may be more vital than ever for New Zealand. Boult’s decision to step back from Test duty, Colin de Grandhomme’s outright retirement, and Jamieson’s injury mean the bowling attack is going through something of a transition. Regardless of the long- and short-term issues that have arisen, it was probably about time given the age profile of a group that has served New Zealand with the utmost distinction. The task of bowling to England’s batters with a ball that doesn’t move all that much sounds daunting, but Wagner, even with his powers waning, has the requisite attitude to rise to that challenge. Of course, Wagner’s bumper barrages will tide New Zealand over when the ball goes quiet, but the theatre he creates every time he has the ball will be a challenge to the machismo of a top order that has pretty much had it going its own way since coming together. New Zealand need every bit of the Wagner that has 15 dismissals at an average of 22.93 at Bay Oval.

Ben Duckett is the man in possession at the top of the order, and rightly so after a hugely impressive return to the Test set-up in Pakistan, six years after his previous appearance. But while his angular, sweep-dominant style was ideally suited to those slow, low pitches, the more seam-friendly challenge in New Zealand could be an important marker ahead of an Ashes series in early-season England, and against one of the most potent pace attacks in the world. In the ODIs in South Africa, Duckett’s low-base cut shot proved his downfall on more than one occasion, and Pat Cummins et al would doubtless be taking notes. His attitude fits the England outlook like a glove, but can his technique prove sufficiently transferrable?

Team news: Stuart Broad back, Blair Tickner set for debut

Injuries and life events mean New Zealand will have two debutants in their XI. Blair Tickner has been confirmed as one of them, but a decision on the other will be made on the morning of the Test after a final look at the pitch. The call-up of Scott Kuggeleijn gives Southee an all-round option to call upon while Jacob Duffy or Ish Sodhi are the full-time pace and legspin alternatives. One imagines Sodhi is the third of the three options given the ball in use and the state of the pitch.

New Zealand: 1 Tom Latham, 2 Devon Conway, 3 Kane Williamson, 4 Henry Nicholls, 5 Daryl Mitchell, 6 Tom Blundell (wk), 7 Michael Bracewell, 8 Scott Kuggeleijn/Jacob Duffy, 9 Tim Southee (capt), 10 Neil Wagner, 11 Blair Tickner

Stuart Broad is set to return and the batting line-up is staying as is from the Pakistan series. Consistency, as ever, is the name of the game, even with a different-colour ball and playing hours (it’s a 2pm start, with the 20-minute break coming first). There was a school of thought that perhaps Olly Stone’s extra pace could be a neat alternative to James Anderson and Ollie Robinson, particularly given the ball can be hard to pick up as the artificial lights take over and bouncers will be necessary once the lateral movement stops. But the best XI will take to the field, no questions asked.

England: 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Ben Duckett, 3 Ollie Pope, 4 Joe Root, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Ben Foakes (wk), 8 Ollie Robinson, 9 Jack Leach, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson

Pitch and conditions

The cyclone has played havoc with preparations for the groundstaff, too, but the conditions were pristine on Wednesday, blue skies, baking sun. The drainage is impressive and the surface is understandably green after so long under the covers. As of 2pm local time, there was a light grey streak through the middle, but Stokes was reticent to judge the pitch on aesthetics outright: “Watching Test matches in New Zealand in the past, [I] don’t think you can look too much into the wickets when they’re green like that.” England played on a greener-looking surface at Hamilton, which produced 775 runs in 151.3 overs across both days. So who knows…

Stats and trivia

  • New Zealand have played three previous Tests at Bay Oval, and they have won the lot by handsome margins: by eight wickets against Bangladesh last January, by 101 runs against Pakistan in December 2020… and by an innings and 65 runs on England’s previous visit, the venue’s inaugural fixture in November 2019.
  • England have not won a single Test in New Zealand for 15 years, dating back to their 2-1 series win in March 2008. Since then they have drawn five and lost two of their seven matches, both by innings to settle each of their last two tours.
  • Anderson and Broad need five more wickets between them to become the most prolific partnership in Test history. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath claimed 1001 wickets in 104 games together between 1993 and 2007. Broad and Anderson currently have 997 from 132 appearances, having first played together on the 2008 tour of New Zealand.
  • Stokes needs seven more wickets to reach 200.
  • Quotes

    “It’s been unusual for us as a country. A lot of people going through tough times. Hopefully, the weather can hold off we can get some cricket in. There’s not been lot of international cricket in New Zealand this summer, so hopefully, we can give people something to watch and look forward to.”
    New Zealand captain Tim Southee hopes the team can provide the country with a welcome distraction

    “The batting group have got a huge understanding of what they can do now because we’ve let them be free. It’s almost like they get themselves in first and second gear and then all of a sudden they’ll go up to fifth because they see that as an opportunity to pounce and really put teams back under pressure.”
    Ben Stokes explains the rationale behind England’s explosive batting exploits

    Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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