England vs New Zealand | Thursday 21 May - Monday 25 May | Lord’s | 12:00
Troubled England begin a two-Test Ashes entree against World Cup finalists and self-appointed underdogs New Zealand. It is becoming difficult for the Black Caps to hold on to the title of subordinates considering the success of a squad already being heralded as a golden generation. It is also problematic to view New Zealand as dark horses given England’s unbridled slide into mediocrity in recent times. Perhaps mediocre is too kind a label; they’ve been simply awful in all respects since the side was ripped apart in the 2013 Ashes series in Australia. The first Test at Lord’s marks the 100th time England and New Zealand will meet in the longest form of the game.
To Win Match
New Zealand 5/2
If supporters of English cricket thought that a tour to the West Indies would help to solve the problems rampant in the squad, they were sorely mistaken. Upon taking a series lead after the second Test in Grenada, they fell apart in the second innings of the third Test in Barbados and ended up squaring the series. Expectations for English Test cricket do not include stalemates against the West Indies. Perhaps the only positive to come out of yet another embarrassment was the return to form of captain Alastair Cook. He struck his first century in almost two years in Barbados and proved difficult to remove for much of the tour. In contrast, Jonathan Trott scored 72 runs in six opportunities at the crease and promptly retired from international cricket.
Yet again, preparations for this series are overshadowed by issues off the field. This is the first squad to be assembled under Andrew Strauss in his reign as Director of Cricket. Of course, much of the furore has surrounded the continued exclusion of Kevin Pietersen. Opinion regarding England’s renegade batsman is better reserved for its own piece. It is, however, clear that England are a weaker side without him. It depends what is valued; winning, or a happy-go-lucky dressing room?
Adam Lyth and Mark Wood have been added to the England squad for this series following admirable performances on the county circuit. Lyth’s average of 67.68 for Yorkshire in their Championship victory last season has seen him beat out Alex Hales - the top Championship run-scorer after five matches this season - to join Alastair Cook at the top of the order. It will be Cook’s sixth opening partner since Strauss retired in 2012. Mark Wood has been fast-tracked into the England set-up after 24 impressive first-class matches. If England decide to make a change to their attack it will likely see Wood take over from Chris Jordan as the third seamer. Ben Stokes will likely keep his place considering his ability with the bat.
Martin Guptill and Matt Henry have received call-ups to the Test squad, the former as much based upon his limited overs exploits as his ability in the long form of the game. In the past Guptill has struggled to translate his magnificent ball-striking ability to the Test arena and hasn’t been a part of New Zealand’s recent success in the five-day game. However, a double century for Derbyshire prior to the tour as well as 150 in the warm-up fixture against Worcestershire suggests that he has fixed the errors exposed in his previous foray into Test cricket and is ready for a return. With opener Tom Latham out of touch and under pressure, Guptill may partner Hamish Rutherford to open at Lord’s. Matt Henry has been included due to an injury to Jimmy Neesham and he will battle Doug Bracewell and Neil Wagner for his place among the seamers. I have a feeling that Corey Anderson will be included in the starting XI as a direct replacement for Neesham.
Lord’s, with its history, slope and honours boards in the dressing rooms seems to evoke a magical quality that is too often missing from the Test game. The allure of securing a place among the century-scorers and five-for-takers on the illustrious boards can often function as motivation for travelling teams. While England’s record at the ground is still a good one they’ve most recently failed to secure results against both Sri Lanka and India. Sri Lanka forced a memorable draw while India overturned a first innings deficit to come out comfortable winners. According to reports only Monday has a chance of being affected by showers.
VERDICT: New Zealand 5/2
New Zealand have climbed to number three on the ICC Test Rankings over the past year while England have failed miserably to regain a semblance of their previous quality. Of course, England are a different prospect at home with the Dukes ball and beat India rather comfortably in their last home series. I liken New Zealand more to Sri Lanka in their visit. They’re in exceptional form and arrive with a point to prove. Their attack will be very difficult to contain on England’s spring wickets and holes in the England middle-order lend themselves to collapse. Brendon McCullum is a bullish, aggressive captain adored by his men. Besides, who can pass up odds of 5/2 for an in-form, winning side?