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May 22, 2008
After the dramatic scenes in Moscow on Wednesday night there will be only one sporting occasion being talked about in the days to come, even on the cricket side of Old Trafford. Manchester United and Chelsea couldn't be split until sudden-death penalties, but 500 yards down the road from where the Champions League trophy will sit, another contest is about to begin between two other sides who are also neck-to-neck, albeit involving far less tension and a little less financial value.
The atmosphere over the next five days won't come near to matching Luzhniki Stadium or, for that matter, Manchester city centre. Not even a Kevin Pietersen classic, or the high-fiving celebrations of Monty Panesar, will register on the same level, although Michael Vaughan would gladly take a dose of both.
England need to kick-start their summer if they are to back-up Vaughan's belief that this team are more advanced that the Ashes-winning unit was the summer before their success in 2005. Even taking into account the disruptive nature of the weather, their performance at Lord's didn't include much of the high-octane, initiative-seizing cricket that became a hallmark of their game from early 2004 for that golden 18-month period.
If any ground is likely to inspire them it is Old Trafford. They have won three of the last four Tests here (the other being the thrilling draw against Australia). "It's probably the best cricket wicket in the country," Vaughan said. "We feel very comfortable here as a team, the wicket is always a very good one. It usually has plenty of pace and offers a lot for Monty Panesar as well."
With the captain having found form, the batting pressure shifts to Paul Collingwood who is having a dire early season and has now gone 10 Tests without a century. England's line-up is still failing to deliver as a unit. Their second-innings performance in Napier bought them some time, but not much. The last occasion they reached 400 in the first innings was the same Test as Collingwood's last century, against West Indies at Chester-le-Street last June. Everyone knows the top six all average over 40, yet as a collective their output over the last 18 months has only been heading one way and the feeling persists they don't feel pressure for their places.
"I certainly don't think it's cosy," said Vaughan. "I don't think anyone's place is guaranteed. I've been involved in an England team a few years ago that was consistent in who we picked for a long period and that achieved great results. As much as we want those 400 scores, it's about winning as a team. They feel very comfortable in each other's company.
"Going into the Sunday [at Lord's] we knew we had to get 400-450 to put New Zealand under pressure on that last day," he said. "We lost wickets and changed the way we went about our game. They are all good players, you talk about form all the time but I fully expect all the guys this week to go in on a good wicket and get a score. We are still better than the form we have shown over the last year.
"I think this wicket is a perfect opportunity for us to get those first-innings runs. We are all playing well at times, but not as a collective unit. The most important thing is winning games of cricket and to do that you have to get 400 on the board consistently. That's our aim throughout the summer, both against New Zealand and later South Africa."
If anything, it was New Zealand who ended with their noses in front at Lord's after Jacob Oram's final-day century and Brendon McCullum's insistence that he would come back out to bat after that crunching blow on his forearm from Stuart Broad. England may have thought they'd knocked the stuffing out of McCullum and scored a psychological point, but this New Zealand side are giving as good as they get.
However, England's short-pitched attack on McCullum was a clear policy and if the Old Trafford pitch lives up to its pacey reputation then all the New Zealanders can expect to be hovering on the back foot. "We don't come across too many fast and bouncy wickets around the world these days," said Daniel Vettori.
"Even Perth has lost some of its reputation so it will be a new experience for us, but I suppose for a lot of our new guys every situation is a new experience to adapt to. I played here in 1999 and would probably have called it a low, slow turner so it's going to be completely different. As in any situation it's about which teams adapts the best."
When Pakistan played here in 2006 they prepared by using a marble slab to try and replicate the wicket conditions. They promptly folded inside three days, being bowled out for 119 and 222. New Zealand haven't opted for any special preparation, although Vettori did say the batting coach, Mark O'Neill, has used his experience of being brought up in Perth.
"A lot of the new guys have talked about it with him," said Vettori. "But some of the time bowlers get carried away with the extra pace and bounce so it's almost them who have to adapt more. That's what we'll be stressing, that it's the same lengths on a bouncy wicket as it was at Lord's."
Vaughan, though, was more into laying down the challenge to his quick bowlers, making the point that they will have to bend their backs to get rewards. "Pace is crucial," he said. "You know you have to bowl with a decent amount of gas and if you do that you will create opportunities with both conventional and reverse swing.
"I am excited about the young seam attack, but they will have to be at top pace to get rewards at Old Trafford. As a bowler you can see the ball carry, but you have to be up there with your pace in every spell you bowl. If you trundle out here and bowl at 80-81mph you can see yourself going around the park."
Vaughan added he liked the "chin music" that Old Trafford Tests can produce and New Zealand won't mind if expectations remain low despite their performance at Lord's. After the victory in Hamilton the players didn't appear quite so comfortable when being talked-up thereafter, and key moments were lost during the last two Tests. However, there may come a time when even the New Zealanders might have to admit they are a bit better than they think, and if that happens, England will realise they aren't as good as they believe they are.
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