‘Hot NZ arrive to catch England cold’, reads the ESPNCricinfo headline.
Following New Zealand’s recent run of form – World Cup runners up, series wins against the West Indies, Sri Lanka, India, a drawn Test series against Pakistan – the team appears to be shaping nicely to push themselves further up the Test rankings.
And it seems as though the faith is well placed. With a middle-order of Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Corey Anderson and BJ Watling, runs seem certain.
And with Trent Boult and Tim Southee the spearheads, not to mention Matt Henry, Neil Wagner and Doug Bracewell in support, a lack of runs from the opposition seems equally sure.
Conversely, England are recoiling from a failed bid for a series win in the West Indies, continue to see the Kevin Pietersen gravy train roll on, and can’t get past the politics and infighting currently stifling them.
Not All Gloom
But not all seems lost for the Poms.
New Zealand relished for years that they could work behind the veil of the ‘underdog’ tag. For the first time, they’ve lost that mantle.
It immediately becomes a mightily more difficult task for the side, dealing not only with the opposition but with the new weight of expectation put upon them.
That could put New Zealand on the back foot. Even when they won a Test series in the West Indies, it received ‘battle of the cellar dwellers’ billing.
New Zealand are now, perhaps, favourites.
England, meanwhile, are coming off a Test defeat and drawn series against the West Indians. That could be a mental blow to the team, the kind of knock to morale which paralyses the side’s development until changes are made.
The positives are there for England, though, despite the media’s doom and gloom approach.
James Anderson is coming back into form as the spearhead described by some as better than Steyn. Alastair Cook has got another international century under his belt. The middle order of Joe Root, Gary Ballance and Ian Bell continue to smite bowlers of all kinds and qualities.
The selection issue is still arising – Adil Rashid’s omission in favour of, first, James Tredwell and later Moeen Ali was baffling. The freshly-retired Jonathan Trott’s selection as an opener ahead of Adam Lyth is bordering on bizarre. Mark Wood’s lack of opportunities was disappointing.
If Moores & Cook inc. decide to advocate youth, as seems the obvious solution to so many of us, England can develop a Test team capable of rivalling anyone. Even the Australians.
Lord’s in May
And it is, after all, Lord’s in May.
The first Test, from May 21st to 25th, is held on the Middlesex green-top of lore.
The second, at Headingley, is apocryphally a spin-friendly track. The reality is different, especially so early in the season.
And for bowlers like James Anderson, the conditions are certainly suitable. If the correct bowlers back Anderson up – the likes of Mark Wood and Jack Brooks – New Zealand will have a task on their hands.
Although New Zealand’s middle order seems strong, the openers are an issue. Martin Guptill or Hamish Rutherford will partner Tom Latham at the top of the order, and neither is exactly a Test-proven batsman. Guptill is more than flawed against pace and movement, while Rutherford was getting out in such pitiful fashion to the West Indies a little over 12 months ago that the opposition were laughing at him.
Even Latham, despite his Test form to date, is yet to face the challenge of swing bowling on a mid-May English deck.
And middle-order wise, New Zealand aren’t flawless. Brendon McCullum has struggled against class pace in the past, and his recent Test heroics have been against Ishant Sharma, Shannon Gabriel and the Sri Lankan lack-of-pace conveyor belt.
Corey Anderson, meanwhile, could be out of the Test series. He would likely be replaced in the order by Martin Guptill, with Rutherford shoring up his opening slot.
The only other feasible option is to bring Mitchell Santner into the squad as an injury replacement; giving New Zealand that vital fifth bowling option again.
Suddenly, that experience and continuity New Zealand has shown is gone.
If England can decide on a solid opening pair – Lyth and Cook – and bring together a Test-standard bowling quartet, New Zealand could be in trouble.
I’m sure we all remember what happened in 2013.
So while the ‘hot’ New Zealand might be running into this series with the favourites tag firmly attached, England are certainly not out of the running.
Indeed, I’d be willing to say that if they can pull themselves together in the next fortnight, we could see an England side running rampant through the New Zealand XI.
I certainly wouldn’t be willing to call New Zealand undisputed favourites just yet; evens at this stage, ready to tip either way.