England braced for loss of Vaughan
The scenario could hardly have been more different the last time these two teams met on English soil. In 1999, England were busy slumping to the bottom of Test cricket's food chain, while New Zealand's awakening was only just underway, after years of stubborn underachievement. These days, however, both sides are contemplating heights that would have seemed absurd five years ago.
Never, not even in the days of the great Sir Richard Hadlee, can a series involving New Zealand have whetted the English appetite so much, and who could have foreseen that it would even steal top billing from the supposed blue-riband event of the summer, the arrival of the West Indians? But, according to the ICC, the victor in this three-Test series will secure third spot on their Test Championship table, tucked in snugly behind South Africa and the not-quite-so-far-distant leaders, Australia. There is a huge amount at stake, and the only shame is that it has followed England's Caribbean triumph with such unseemly haste.
Not that the speed of the series will bother New Zealand, who warmed to the whistle-stop theme by naming their side for Thursday's Lord's Test a full 48 hours in advance. "There was no point in procrastinating," said their coach, John Bracewell. "We are more than happy with the XI we have decided on."
Admittedly, there was little left for them to deliberate, after the results of two key fitness tests. As expected, Shane Bond is not to be risked just yet, although his comeback is still on track after a year on the sidelines with a stress fracture, but Stephen Fleming has recovered from an abdominal injury, and will open the batting with Mark Richardson, for just the second time in his Test career.
New Zealand's early announcement was a neat psychological ploy, given that the England camp is still reeling from the probable loss of their captain, Michael Vaughan, who had to be stretchered out of the nets in agony on Monday, after twisting his knee in attempting a sweep-shot. "He is still very doubtful for the Test," admitted a team spokesman. "We will reassess the situation after breakfast, and the selectors have had informal discussions about who might take over as captain if he has to withdraw, but our intention is to give him as much time as possible to recover."
Nevertheless, it is a measure of the strides taken by England in recent years - and a positive reflection on Vaughan's captaincy style as well - that the disruption to their preparations has been nothing like as traumatic as was the case in 2001, when Nasser Hussain's broken finger forced a hugely reluctant Mike Atherton to return to the helm for the second Test against Australia. On that occasion, Atherton was pressed into action because of a glaring absence of alternatives (the only enthusiastic candidate was Darren Gough), but this time around, Marcus Trescothick and Mark Butcher have both declared their willingness to step into the breach.
Andrew Flintoff and the wise old owl Hussain himself would also merit worthy consideration for a stopgap role, but thanks to Vaughan's open-plan leadership style, England are suddenly spoilt for choice. The likely alternative would be Trescothick, but in view of his woeful Test form, the sensible pick would be Butcher, who was even considered England leadership material on New Zealand's last visit in 1999, a full year before Trescothick had made his debut.
Butcher's previous flirtations with the captaincy have been marred by unfortunate timing - in 1999, and standing in for Hussain, he was so hopelessly out of form that he was dropped for the fourth and final Test at The Oval, while two years and a complete overhaul of his career later, he wisely chose not to take on extra responsibilities, having only just earned an improbable recall against the Australians. Now, however, he stands at the pinnacle of his career: he was the rock of England's batting in the Caribbean, and at 31, he is ripe for higher honours.
The more pressing issue is how to replace Vaughan the batsman. In terms of pecking order, the logical solution would be to promote Butcher to open alongside Trescothick, and introduce Paul Collingwood to the middle order. But such a route would jeopardise the stability that Butcher provides as England's most effective No. 3 in a generation. The bold choice, albeit one that might put Collingwood's already broken nose back out of joint, would be to introduce the specialist opener, Andrew Strauss, for his Test debut. As Middlesex's captain, Strauss would doubtless be lifted by the Lord's atmosphere, while his temperament seems to be beyond question, following his impressive performances in the one-dayers in the Caribbean.
There would still be room for Collingwood to make his return, however, if England took the plunge and omitted Ashley Giles from their XI. He was ineffective in the sun-baked Caribbean, and so is unlikely to have much of a say back in England in mid-May. On the other hand, in the back of Duncan Fletcher's mind will be the 2002 Lord's Test against Sri Lanka, also in May, when Giles was omitted from what turned out to be a Colombo import of a wicket. Without Vaughan's occasional offspin, England might find themselves without a slow bowler of any repute to turn to.
So not for the first time, a Gilo reprieve is on the cards, as is one for Simon Jones, who was notably ineffective at the tailend of the Caribbean tour (and conceded 100 runs in just 17 overs in Antigua). James Anderson has made an eloquent statement of intent with ten match-winning wickets for Lancashire against Worcestershire, but there are likely to be enough enforced changes to England's winning formula already. The selectors will be loath to make changes for change's sake as well.
There is perhaps a mild dose of panic in the England camp at the moment, in stark contrast to the serenity among the Kiwis, but it could be just what the team needs to shake off any lingering complacencies and winter battle-fatigue. In 1999, and again in 2001-02, England allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by New Zealand's lowly status. This time, however, there can be no doubt about the challenge that awaits.
With 20 Test victories and only 17 defeats to his name, Fleming has established himself as the pre-eminent captain in the post-Waugh world, while New Zealand's middle order bristles with experience and attacking intent in men such as Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle, who is set to play for the first time since October, but needs no reintroduction to the England bowlers, after his sensational 222 from 153 balls at Christchurch in 2001-02.
Further down the line, there is Chris Cairns, who is embarking on the final chapter of his great career, and the towering figure of Jacob Oram, whose furious strokeplay and lofty seam bowling could just prove to be the sensation of the tour. And let's not forget Daniel Vettori, who was just a schoolboy when he made his debut against Atherton's tourists in 1996-97, but is now one of the front-ranking spinners in the game, and a Test centurion to boot.
The series has all the makings of a mini-classic.
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick (capt), 2 Mark Butcher, 3 Nasser Hussain, 4 Graham Thorpe, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Steve Harmison, 10 Matthew Hoggard, 11 Simon Jones.
New Zealand 1 Mark Richardson, 2 Stephen Fleming (capt), 3 Nathan Astle, 4 Craig McMillan, 5 Scott Styris, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Chris Cairns, 8 Brendon McCullum (wk), 9 Daniel Vettori, 10 Daryl Tuffey, 11 Chris Martin.