Leader of the Opposition

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When New Zealand play England in a two-Test series in May, England will head in as firm favourites.

Despite New Zealand’s recent performances in the World Cup (contrasted against England’s woes), a May pitch at Lord’s is very different to a flat drop-in at the Caketin.

And I’m sure we all remember what happened last time these two sides met in a Lord’s Test.

New Zealand’s top score in their second innings was 17, the team was rolled for 68, and the game was finished off with an appropriately comical run out. England used just two bowlers, and New Zealand lasted less than 23 overs.

There were some upsides, however. A 24 year old quick bowler, Timothy Grant Southee, started to cement his place in the Test side. He took four and six wickets in the two England innings, and got his name on the Lord’s honours board.

Tim Southee and Trent Boult were New Zealand’s spearheads in that Test, but at the time they were still very greenhorn.

Fast forward 24 months, and things have changed. Those two have become possibly the best bowling combination in world cricket. They’ve won Test series, they led New Zealand to a World Cup final, and they’ve gelled in a way that not even Morkel and Steyn have managed.

But, despite Trent Boult’s individual brilliance, Tim Southee remains the key man.

Boult has taken a huge volume of wickets and at a stunning rate (earning him the Windsor Cup just the other day), but he remains the junior partner. Although they complement each other beautifully, Southee is the man who must step up and take control.

After all, McCullum has said for a while that he considers him the head of the bowling attack, and at one point wanted him as Twenty20 vice-captain.

Southee’s Test figures – 39 matches, 136 wickets, 30.61 average – aren’t yet world class. But much of that was because he was yet to make a mark in Test cricket in his first three years, under the captaincy of Daniel Vettori. Under Vettori’s tutelage, he took 35 wickets in 13 Tests at 42.54.

Since Taylor, and subsequently McCullum, have taken the Test reigns, those figures have improved dramatically to 101 wickets in 26 Tests at just 26.48.

They’re positive signs, and show why he’s the key man for New Zealand – and for England.

From New Zealand’s point of view, if Southee’s firing and causing the English trouble, it allows Boult and a selection of Bracewell, Henry and Wagner to join in and have the northerners hopping about. When the main man – be it Johnson for Australia, Steyn for South Africa or Anderson for England – is on song, the other bowlers simply have to join in the fun.

The strike bowler always sets the tone.

For the English, blunting Southee means going a long way to blunting New Zealand as a whole. And despite their status as favourites, New Zealand will run them hard. Unless they can fend off Southee – and the host of other outstanding quicks waiting behind him – they’ll find a confidence boost leading into the Ashes very difficult to find.

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