Deference disguises Kiwi resolve
Whenever England and New Zealand get together for a cricket match, which in the current climate seems to be every other week, the pattern of the pre-match posturing is all too familiar. England puff themselves up to their fullest height, and announce loftily that they anticipate nothing less than victory; to which New Zealand tug their forelocks and give thanks for any praise that comes their way, however backhanded.
Take Michael Vaughan's assessment ahead of tomorrow's Lord's Test, for instance. He declared New Zealand to be a "workmanlike" side, an epithet that his opposite number, Daniel Vettori, immediately seized on as a compliment. "We aren't blessed with the stars of other sides," said Vettori, "but that's always been the way with New Zealand cricket. If we've got guys prepared to work hard, then hopefully we give ourselves a chance."
Such modesty. And yet, if you tot up the results of all 11 matches played between the two nations since February, the stats are split at five wins apiece, with a tied ODI at Napier to balance the books. What is more, it is barely two weeks since Vettori and the cream of his side were taking part in the IPL revolution - and in the case of their kingpin, Brendon McCullum, planting his silver fern emblem squarely on the top of the world with that incredible opening-night 158. Deference is New Zealand's default setting, but subservience couldn't be further from their mindset.
Vaughan, in fairness, is fully aware of the dangers that New Zealand can pose to complacent sides. "They have explosive players and a powerful, aggressive, middle order, and if they bat long periods of time they'll certainly score fast," he said. "Generally they are a very workmanlike side, but very dangerous if you allow them to play their way. We have to play the way we can and try to dominate."
But no amount of platitudes can disguise the fundamental truth. England expect to win, New Zealand expect merely to compete. In a show of strength, England have named an unchanged eleven, twenty-four hours in advance of the start, with Matthew Hoggard once again deemed surplus to requirements; New Zealand, on the other hand, have narrowed their deliberations down to a squad of 12, which includes five changes from the Napier Test, two debutants, and a distinct air of the unknown.
"We're a relatively new side, finding our own identity," said Vettori, a choice of words that possibly wasn't intended to echo Peter Moores' assessment of England's own situation, but did so anyway. Their team will feature two debutants in Aaron Redmond and Daniel Flynn; an overseas debut for their teenage seamer, Tim Southee, and a recall after three years for their new No. 3, James Marshall, whose Test tally of 166 runs is more than 7000 shy of the previous incumbent, Stephen Fleming.
|We scrapped two good victories to get a series win [in March], and we have to move on now and beat New Zealand at home in a convincing fashion - Michael Vaughan sets out England's intentions for the series|
The most significant change, however, is a positional one, with McCullum shifting up two notches from No. 7 to No. 5. According to Vettori, the management had to hold him back from climbing any higher in the order - in the corresponding Test in 2004, he batted at No. 3 and made 96 - but his promotion adds a layer of menace to the middle order that was so palpably lacking throughout the series Down Under.
"It's not worth putting too much on his plate," said Vettori. "Brendon has thrived on the opening job in one-dayers, and we have to acknowledge he's one of our best batsmen. He's aggressive and has a good cricketing brain, but if he's down at No. 7, manipulating the strike with the tail, then it's hard for him to maximise his potential. He's one of the best keepers in the world, now it's a chance for him to be one of the best batsmen."
For the five New Zealanders who took part in the IPL - McCullum, Vettori, Ross Taylor, Jacob Oram and Kyle Mills - a return to whites at the home of cricket, no less, will represent a massive gear-shift, even in this razzmatazz era of non-stop jetsetting and switching between formats. Vettori, however, insisted that the surroundings alone would be enough to focus his players' attentions - especially given the rarity of New Zealand Tests these days.
Until England came to visit in March, New Zealand had played only four Tests in 15 months, and two of those came against Bangladesh. After this trip, their whites go back into mothballs, as they return to a familiar diet of one-day cricket, starting with a three-match tour to Pakistan in August. It is arguably England who will find it harder to keep their minds on the job, as thoughts begin to shift inexorably towards the visits of South Africa in July, and of course, Australia next summer.
"The target is to generate a team to play good consistent cricket," said Vaughan. "We scrapped two good victories to get a series win [in March], and we have to move on now and beat New Zealand at home in a convincing fashion. I expect us to play well and hopefully win the series to put us in good stead going into the South Africa series later in the summer."
It would help England no end, of course, if the captain himself could get back among the runs. Vaughan endured a lean winter in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, with 338 runs in 12 innings at 28.16, culminating in a tally of six runs at Napier. His season with Yorkshire has not begun auspiciously either, with two embarrassing failures against Bradford/Leeds University, and in a bid to put his game right, he is slipping back down to No. 3 for this series in a straight swap with Andrew Strauss.
"I feel my body's moving in a decent position when I bat, I just haven't got the big scores," said Vaughan. "Straussy batted at 3 in New Zealand and he wants to open, I opened and prefer batting at 3, and my record there is pretty good. I didn't play as well as I could, certainly in that last game in Napier, but I look back on the last 12 months and I've probably had two bad games. But I've got to try and play more consistent cricket, and get more consistent scores."
Vaughan's travails are a reminder of the underlying fragility of England's current position. Four years ago, they won the corresponding series 3-0, a performance that transformed them from a good side to arguably the greatest that England has ever seen. They'd dearly love the coming weeks to bring about a similar metamorphosis, but such thoughts need to be banished to the furthest recesses of their collective minds. As New Zealand have consistently demonstrated all winter, they love nothing better than to be written off.
England 1 Andrew Strauss, 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Michael Vaughan (capt), 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Paul Collingwood, 7 Tim Ambrose (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Ryan Sidebottom, 10 James Anderson, 11 Monty Panesar.
New Zealand (probable) 1 Jamie How, 2 Aaron Redmond, 3 James Marshall, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Brendon McCullum, 6 Daniel Flynn, 7 Jacob Oram, 8 Daniel Vettori (capt), 9 Kyle Mills, 10 Tim Southee, 11 Chris Martin.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo