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Without time for the military-like preparation that has preceded successes against Australia and India, England were lacklustre in New Zealand and can't afford to be off-guard again
May 15, 2013
When three of England's players spoke to the press on Monday the backdrop was adorned with "Investec Ashes". If they really aren't thinking about it, there are plenty of reminders. Yet before the urn is contested there are other serious matters to attend to, the first being two more Tests against a New Zealand side who caused England plenty of headaches less than two months ago.
Those performances, which resulted in a 0-0 draw that England barely deserved, led to a forceful warning by national selector Geoff Miller that a repeat will not be tolerated. For a man not normally associated with strong statements when naming squads, his comments last weekend suggested intent to get a message out to the players; but they, understandably, continue to be steadfast in the belief that their mindset in New Zealand was not a problem.
How they respond will be fascinating. Or perhaps that should be how they are allowed to respond. Yes, England were below their best in New Zealand but the hosts played some outstanding cricket, especially in Auckland - better than even their staunchest of supporters would probably admit to being thought possible in the wake of their previous few months on and off the field.
When it was put to Mike Hesson, the New Zealand coach, that England's difficulties were because they came up against a team playing well he said "I'd like to think so". This series remains a battle between No. 2 and No. 8 in the world, but New Zealand certainly do not carry themselves like a team that feels inferior. They have respect for the opposition, but no fear.
|Though England's year will be remembered by what comes later, another bloody nose in the next couple of weeks would raise some awkward questions.|
They are led by an outstanding cricketer. Brendon McCullum showed why Hesson wanted him as captain and he has been impressive at every turn both on and off the field. Seemingly small things, such as being happy to say what he would do at the toss, or naming his team the day before, helped build a feeling that he was confident in his own gameplan.
At the England Player of the Year dinner, Alastair Cook was asked whether he felt pressure to follow aggressive captaincy that the likes of McCullum (and later this summer Michael Clarke) tend to adopt. He was adamant about being his own man, an equally admirable trait that has served him outstandingly well, but whether he starts to develop a more attacking streak or remains akin to his predecessor Andrew Strauss will be one of the many subplots to this season.
McCullum out-smarted England in the previous series. "They have clearly done a lot of planning and they set some very clever fields for those wickets," Ian Bell said earlier this week. Did England quite manage the same level of planning and preparation they would for a series against the, so called, bigger nations? Compared to their military-like approach to Australia or India, something felt a little lacking.
Part of home advantage should help avoid a repeat. Andy Flower and his staff have had plenty of time to examine what happened, while the players have all - except Graeme Swann - had a minimum of two Championship matches to prepare. In fact, it is hard to say that any of the 12 in the squad are coming into the series with doubts over their form.
England will expect the Dukes ball to swing - in every sense - the odds back in their favour. But serious concerns will emerge if they continue to struggle to get the ball consistently off straight. That, though, is also New Zealand's strength. They have a strong hand of swing bowlers, especially the rapidly improving Trent Boult.
In a short two-Test series (although it could be viewed as a five-match series spread over each side of the world) one bad innings can be enough to make it unwinnable. On the New Zealand tour, England had two horrendous first-innings display, in Dunedin and Auckland, from where they were only ever trying to save the game.
The second-innings hundreds of Cook, Nick Compton and Matt Prior were courageous backs-to-the-wall displays, but Test matches are set up by first-innings runs as England showed in Wellington where they played an almost textbook Test for three days before the rain came. Bell is an example of someone who needs to ensure his defining innings of a series is there to set up a position of strength, rather than secure a draw as he helped to do in Nagpur and Auckland.
New Zealand's batsmen do not come into the series in the best of shape. Hamish Rutherford found his touch against England Lions (keep an eye on how many runs he scores from cover to backward point) but Peter Fulton has struggled against the moving ball. McCullum and Ross Taylor have had one innings apiece, so will need to dig deep into their experience, while Kane Williamson will need to remember lessons from his Gloucestershire stint.
Despite what happened in March, England will again start favourites - not a tag that always appears to sit comfortably. But New Zealand have it them to win their first Test in Britain since The Oval in 1999 and, though England's year will be remembered by what comes later, another bloody nose in the next couple of weeks would raise some awkward questions.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Andrew McGlashan
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge