England v New Zealand, 1st Investec Test, Lord's May 15, 2013

Sharpen up to avoid second headache

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

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 ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Richard on May 16, 2013, 8:57 GMT

    England took New Zealand lightly, there is no denying, the batsmen were sloppy and the bowlers uninterested. I don't think it reflects well on England's players, particularly the bowlers, that they seem to have to be led into and built up for a series and told exactly what to do by Andy Flower, before they can perform, Swann aside. Unless there is some military style prep, like is usual for the Ashes, they don't seem to be able to motivate and prepare themselves. I am worried that this series will be taken lightly too, and we will be complacement against the Aussies because they aren't very good. I think we may end up being reliant on players motivated by the need to prove themselves, like Root, Bairstow and Compton, and Swann after his injury, while Bell gets pretty 20's and Finn and Broad drop in half tracker after half tracker.

  • Dummy4 on May 16, 2013, 5:21 GMT

    The time is nigh for Southee and Boult to show that they are not actually that far behind Anderson in their ability to control a swinging ball. England fans would do well to remember that of all the international teams New Zealand is the one that plays in most similar conditions to early summer in England in their own country. A lot is made of New Zealand's supposedly inferior bowling outfit because of their lack of pace, but I think we will find that actually it's the inferior technique of their batsmen that proves their undoing if anything. Fulton is not the only one that suffers from being tempted rashly by a swinging delivery. If they can control that urge as a team, they will definitely prove a handful for England yet again. If not, a one-sided battle may ensue. England will do well to heed the fact that they were extremely lucky to avoid a series loss in NZ....a series in which they were largely outplayed.

  • shashwata on May 16, 2013, 2:56 GMT

    I am fully aware that NZ are a better side than most people make them out to be and that they made life miserable for England in 2 out of 3 tests in March. I am also aware that England were way below par and seemed to have lost all their intensity in those tests. The bowling in particular looked pretty ordinary .

    But being an England supporter , I would like to believe that they are still as good as they were in 2011 and the players still have lots of skill and potential. It is just that they need to convert this potential into performance, which is easier said than done. But they have it in them to do it.

    Come On boys !! Go out there and prove it that I'm not wrong.

  • Michael on May 15, 2013, 22:59 GMT

    This should be a very excellent little series if the weather holds and we are not over-reminded of what lies ahead. Lets have it one day at a time. I do however expect the weather to have some say on proceedings as yet another sping undergoes the ravages of an increasingly dreadful climate. There are a number of contests within contest to enjoy,not least Anderson's likely 300th wicket.

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