If ever there was a venue for this rebooted England team to come full circle, it would have to be the Basin Reserve in Wellington. It was here, back on their 2007-08 tour, that James Anderson – the newly reinstated No.1 Test bowler in the world – began his now-1009-wicket partnership with Stuart Broad, claiming a first-innings five-for no less, to establish England’s foothold in a memorable 2-1 series turnaround.
It was at the Basin Reserve too, six years after that feat, that Brendon McCullum – England’s Test coach and former New Zealand great – laid down the most imposing monument of his Test career: his national-record 302 against India in 2014 that, over and above everything else he achieved on the field, was probably the innings that confirmed he was truly qualified to oversee this startling rebirth of England’s Test fortunes.
And Wellington, the city, has been an important staging post in England’s wider journey too. Ben Stokes, the captain, called it home for two years from 2001 to 2003, before his father Ged’s rugby league career brought the family to Cumbria, and the rest to history. And though it’s hardly likely to be worthy of any pilgrimages during the team’s stay, it could be argued that the city’s other cricket venue, the infamous Cake Tin in the Docklands, deserves its own footnote. Had it not been for the gruesomely total crushing that McCullum (and New Zealand’s current skipper Tim Southee) inflicted on Eoin Morgan’s men at the 2015 World Cup, it’s debatable whether any of England’s recent story – white or red – could possibly have come to pass.
So it’s hello again to those white picket-fences, and the William Wakefield Monument, and the buffeting winds that get funnelled directly up through the Cook Strait to wreak havoc with the bowlers’ run-ups. Thanks to Covid, it’s been a long old while since New Zealand last played a Test here – two-and-a-bit years in fact, the longest hiatus at the venue since 1981 – and as Southee intimated after his team’s rather bruising defeat under Mount Maunganui’s floodlights last week, their familiarity with both the venue and the traditional red ball may yet help the regrouping process.
New Zealand do, after all, boast an impressive recent record at the Basin Reserve – in five visits since December 2017, they’ve emerged with three innings wins, a further ten-wicket trouncing of India, and one draw that got away – thanks to a combination of rain and a rather epic Sri Lanka rearguard, all of which formed part of that inexorable rise to the World Test Championship title, sealed at the Ageas Bowl in June 2021.
Two years on, however, New Zealand are a team on the other side of the slope. Southee, at the age of 34, soldiers on with much the same magnificence as his new-ball counterparts Broad and Anderson, but he’s lost his fellow spearhead Trent Boult to the contractual complications of the T20 franchise era, not to mention other stalwarts of a generational team, such as Ross Taylor, Colin de Grandhomme and – in the short term at least – Kyle Jamieson. And, with England in a mood to wreck the record-books in Mount Maunganui, the flaying of New Zealand’s most indomitable competitor, Neil Wagner, told a story of its own. With a brazen disregard for precedent, England eviscerated Wagner’s short-ball methods to the tune of 13-2-110-2 in the second innings. On the eve of his 37th birthday, it’s hard to see how even he can come back from such disparaging treatment.
Nevertheless, England’s win last week was only their first in the country for seven Tests, spanning three tours and 15 years since the Broad-Anderson origin story of 2008 – and though New Zealand have failed to win any of their six series since the new WTC cycle began, they still haven’t lost a home rubber since South Africa’s visit in 2017, 12 campaigns ago. Even if England’s current form implies that that is about to change, it’s not been in the Black Caps’ recent nature to go down without a fight.
Form guide: England on a roll
New Zealand LDDLL (last five Tests, most recent first) England WWWWW
In the spotlight: James Anderson and Kane Williamson
Every new day seems to provide another reason to marvel at James Anderson’s freakish defiance of the laws of nature, but this week of all weeks, it seems only right to place him on the pedestal. Not only is he back where his career truly began, 15 long years ago, but he does so as the ICC’s newly-restored No.1 Test bowler, a ranking he last attained back in 2018. His seven wickets at Mount Maunganui perfectly encapsulated the performer he has long since become – phenomenally skilled, unswervingly accurate, and possessing the wisdom to adapt his method to suit the subtleties of each new scenario – but it was a very different brand of bowler who seized that 2008 comeback Test to the tune of 5 for 73 in the first innings. He’d started life as a tearaway outswinger, capable of 90mph speeds but liable to lose his radar in the process; now he’d found the means to channel those attributes into a more rounded, permanent threat, even if other key tools of his trade – not least the wobble-seam delivery – would be a few more years in the making. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to recall his comments at the end of that performance … an early sign, it seems, of a player whose ambition was more burning than his diffident demeanour had previously let on. “I want to be the bowler that the captain can throw the ball to when we need a wicket,” he said. “I want to stake a claim and be here for a long time.” And so it has proven.
Kane Williamson’s first Test back in the ranks on home soil was a chastening affair. Anderson pinned him with a nipbacker under the lights on the first evening; Broad repeated the dose in the same circumstances on the third, this time bowling him through a half-closed gate precisely because of his reluctance to commit to the front foot in such conditions. Even in light of his ongoing elbow issues, it’s hardly enough reason to panic about Williamson’s returns – he only went and made the fifth double-century of his Test career in Karachi two months ago – but such are the frailties elsewhere in New Zealand’s line-up, the onus is on one of their most decorated campaigners to find some traction against the Bazball juggernaut. In his last home Test campaign, in 2020-21, Williamson stepped forward with consecutive scores of 251, 129 and 238. What his team would give for something similar this week.
Team news: Henry returns, England name unchanged XI
In Boult’s absence at Mount Maunganui, England missed the new-ball knowhow of Matt Henry more than they might have imagined. He’s back in the set-up after missing that Test for the birth of his child, and seems likely to shore up a callow bowling unit in which Southee was too easily exposed by the frailties around him. Nevertheless, the debutants Blair Tickner and Scott Kuggeleijn showed spirit in adversity, not least with the bat, and might conceivably have done enough to retain their places – albeit it would be a huge call not to give an aggrieved Wagner one last chance to prove his methods can still match up to England’s aggression.
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, 9 Tim Southee (capt), 10 Matt Henry, 11 Blair Tickner / Neil Wagner
England have named an unchanged XI, despite a few doubts about England’s senior seamers. Ollie Robinson reported a slight knee niggle two days out from the Test, while Anderson and Broad both reported soreness after their Mount Maunganui exertions. None of them turned up for training on match eve, but as Stokes put it: “I just texted all three of them, asking if they were good for the game, and they said yeah”. The decision means more time on the sidelines for Matthew Potts, the bustling seamer whom Robinson replaced during last summer’s South Africa series, and Olly Stone, whose fiery displays in the ODIs in South Africa were a decent indication of his new-found robustness after recent back issues.
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 Wellington pitch had a thick covering of grass two days out from the Test, but is sure to undergo a haircut before the contest gets underway. “It’s usually a pretty good surface,” Southee said on the eve of the match. “I know it looks green… but there have been a number of hundreds scored here. So it’s a good cricket wicket.” The one factor that may prove less surmountable is the weather. Showers are forecast throughout the week, with delays a probability.
Stats and trivia
England have an impressive overall record at the Basin Reserve, with four wins and one defeat in 11 previous Tests at the venue, dating back to 1930. That one setback, courtesy of Richard Hadlee in 1978, was also New Zealand’s first victory over England, at the 48th attempt.
Harry Brook comes into the Test off the back of three consecutive Player-of-the-Match awards. The last time he didn’t win the accolade, at Rawalpindi in December, he still contributed scores of 153 and 87.
Stokes has now overseen ten Test wins in the space of 12 matches in charge (including a one-off role as stand-in in 2020), the equal joint-fastest to double figures, alongside Australia’s Lindsay Hassett. One more win will draw him level with Len Hutton’s haul of 11 wins in 23 Tests.
Another England win would make it seven in a row for Stokes’ men, one shy of the record run of success that Michael Vaughan oversaw in 2004, spanning three wins against New Zealand, four against West Indies and one in South Africa.
Stokes is six wickets away from reaching 200 in Test cricket. At Mount Maunganui he overhauled his coach McCullum to become the leading six-hitter in the format.
“I think they’ve shown they want to play result cricket. I think it’s a great way to look at things. It’s our job to get things right and hopefully we’re in for a good Test match.” New Zealand captain Tim Southee embraces the inevitability of England’s approach to the Test
“It’s good for everyone seeing that effect we could be having. We’ll take that as another win and I’ll say we get sold-out crowds because of the way we play.” Ben Stokes believes that Bazball is captivating the fans.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket