Expectations rise for overqualified underdogs
New Zealand have arrived in England but they are determined not to make any ripples. At least not yet. For all their on-field panache, it is New Zealand's style to keep things low key. Then again, with expectations around the team as high as they have ever been, that may prove difficult. Even on a rainy weekday at Lord's, two weeks before the start of the Test series, cameras and microphones jostled for space in front of Mike Hesson and BJ Watling.
The squad, missing a handful of IPL participants, arrived a few days ago and have been getting acclimatised even as England begin the inquiries into their failure to beat West Indies. When New Zealand last played in these parts, they were the side attempting to put a period of internecine strife behind them; they lost 2-0 but, under Brendon McCullum's captaincy, are unbeaten in six series since, winning four.
Last year was New Zealand's best ever in Tests but they then scaled another peak by reaching their first World Cup final. Defeat to Australia might have prevented the fairytale finale but, as Hesson conceded, their success has only left New Zealand's fans wanting more.
"There's definitely expectation, which we probably haven't had a lot of," Hesson said. "We found that out in the World Cup - if we won a game, if we didn't win it well we got criticism, whereas in the past we were just happy winning. There's a growing expectation that has happened over the past couple of years, we've got more following at home and an expectation that we perform over here.
"For 18 months we've played good cricket, six series in a row Test-wise ... We're a developing side but we manage to play good cricket. The country have got behind us in all forms of cricket, we've ridden the wave really, the public support has been amazing."
New Zealand are perhaps the least likely side in world cricket to make any big statements but their unshowy, methodical approach has nevertheless won them many admirers. In the week of the UK's general election, there was perhaps a politically astute message in Hesson's refusal to make bold claims about his side's ability to win a Test series in England for the first time in 16 years: under promise, over deliver.
"It would be another step forward," he said. "We've won four Test matches here in our history so to win a series would be huge. We never get too far ahead of ourselves, we're pretty boring in that respect, just deal with the next day and do it as best we can. We've got a pretty well grounded group.
"It's just another stepping stone, really, for us. We've had some really good achievements away from home, winning in England... Well, let's start at Lord's, winning at Lord's is a huge thing. In 1999 the guys that were part of that, it was a big part of their careers. We've got a lot of work to do in the next couple of weeks to prepare us for that first day."
Those preparations will be necessarily disjointed, with five members of New Zealand's likely Test side currently at the IPL and unlikely to arrive in England until a few days before the Lord's match begins, on May 21. For this week's tour match against Somerset, only 11 players are fit, which at least makes selection straightforward. Martin Guptill will not play, due to a side strain, but Hesson hopes to have him back for the match at Worcestershire starting on May 14.
Watling will captain the side, in the absence of McCullum, who is in India along with Kane Williamson, Corey Anderson, Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Matt Henry. Those players are trusted to be ready to make the switch from T20 to Test cricket and have Dukes balls with them to allow for appropriate practice during the IPL. "We've become more used to the fact it's part of the landscape," Hesson said, pragmatically.
Hesson was also diplomatic about New Zealand only being granted two Tests in the English spring. The last time they played as many as four was in 1999, when a 2-1 victory left England bottom the rankings; should they win on this occasion they would go above their hosts, pushing England down to fifth.
"I think some of it's been performance, we've been down the pecking order in terms of our ranking," Hesson said. "England obviously have two tours so we normally get the early one and we tend to be a bit of an entree to the Ashes. But you have to earn the right for those extended series and you do that over a period of time, so that's something we're looking to do."
English cricket may habitually - and lazily - take the Ashes is its barometer but New Zealand increasingly look overqualified as underdogs. While England underwent a trial by white-ball cricket over the winter, New Zealand won a legion of new followers; as England return from the Caribbean buffeted by another embarrassment, New Zealand are waiting, courteously, to take another step on their own upward journey. Just don't expect a comment about the opposition.
"Haven't paid a heck of a lot of attention, to be fair, we've been worrying about our own backyard," Hesson said of England's recent struggles. "We've scouted them and we've spent a bit of time studying methods and techniques but we haven't studied their psyche."
Watling put forward a similar line and, despite New Zealand being bowled out for 68 at Lord's in 2013, it seems likely England will be the side wrestling with their demons. "We'll worry about our own thing," Watling said. "We obviously came here two years ago and didn't have the greatest of series. We'll be looking to improve on that effort and learn from those mistakes. These two first warm-up games will be crucial in terms of getting loads up for the bowlers and getting the batsmen used to the conditions. We'll look to carry on our good form in Test cricket."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick