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March 4, 2013
Features : All-round England clear favourites
News : England are Test 'giants' - McCullum
News : Bracewell in doubt for first Test
News : Finn keeps his run-up short and simple
Series/Tournaments: England tour of New Zealand
New Zealand is a country of adrenalin-fuelled adventure sports, but the expectation is that the Test series that starts in Dunedin on Wednesday will not get pulses racing in the same way. In fact, there have been plenty of suggestions that all England need to do to bag a 3-0 whitewash is to turn up. There has just been the odd hint of disquiet from the New Zealand viewpoint that this is being treated as an Ashes warm-up. The New Zealand XI victory in the tour game in Queenstown has not gone unnoticed.
New Zealand's recent Test form is leading to the low expectations but perhaps it should not be taken as so black and white. They are not the only team to have been recently bowled out for under 50 by South Africa; the match before that they beat Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka to level a series (the same result England managed). They are now back on home soil, after extensive periods touring, which should make them feel more comfortable.
England begin as clear favourites. That is usually the way when they tour here but history is littered with examples of the challenge having proved harder than expected. Last time, in 2008, they lost in Hamilton by 189 runs, getting humbled on the final day by Kyle Mills and Chris Martin. In 2002 they went into the final Test, in Auckland, with a 1-0 lead and despite the match being badly hit by rain lost by 78 runs. Although Michael Atherton's team were ultimately 2-0 winners in 1997 they had to overcome the embarrassment of being defied by Danny Morrison in the first Test.
This time, led by the combative Brendon McCullum, New Zealand are far from so hopeless that England can ignore the immediate challenge. Clearly, the recent problems surrounding the shockingly handled change of captaincy have destabilised the team - rumours of differences in the dressing room persist, although New Zealand aren't alone in that - but McCullum is a single-minded leader who faces his task head on.
From England's point of view, anything less than a 2-0 scoreline (there is a chance of rain at some point, not least in Dunedin) will be a disappointment. Having put their Test game back on track in India after a difficult 2012 they now need to redevelop that ruthless edge which characterised their play during 2011.
After the upheavals of last summer - Kevin Pietersen's problems and the retirement of Andrew Strauss - the team has been stabilised. Nine of the first-choice XI for Test cricket are set in stone; the two areas for debate are the third fast-bowling slot and the long-term opening partner for Alastair Cook.
Stuart Broad looks set to return to support James Anderson and Steven Finn, but doubts remain over how much long-form cricket he will be able to play as he attempts to manage his heel problem. It seems inconceivable that he will be able to go through such a full programme this year - 14 Tests, with a 15th in January 2014 - without another break. Beyond him, too, there are now a few more questions about the depth of what follows than had previously been thought.
Nick Compton will retain his position alongside Cook and he deserves the opportunity to build on his hard work in India. At 29, he still has time to forge a lengthy Test career but he needs to show he can do more than purely blunt the new ball.
As odd as it may sound considering the considerable averages of most of England's top order, New Zealand should feel they have a chance to make early inroads. Compton and Pietersen are short of time in the middle and Jonathan Trott has not been quite at his best. And in the opposite corner the home side have, amid all the problems, formed a decent pace attack.
|"From England's point of view, anything less than a 2-0 scoreline will be a disappointment. Having put their Test game back on track in India after a difficult 2012 they now need to redevelop that ruthless edge which characterised their play during 2011"|
Tim Southee is back to lead the line and has matured into a consistent swing bowler. His success in Sri Lanka, where he took 12 wickets in two Tests, was the mark of someone entering his peak. Doug Bracewell, fitness permitting, can produce incisive spells while Trent Boult, as long as he doesn't drop it short, can swing the new ball. Neil Wagner also caused England problems in Queenstown.
In turn, though, New Zealand's batting will be severely tested, especially by Anderson's swing and Finn's pace. They will have a new-look opening pair - likely to be Hamish Rutherford and Peter Fulton - and it has been a while since the side have been given consistent starts. Four of the last six first-wicket stands have been single figure (albeit three of them came against Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander) and the last hundred opening partnership was 12 Tests ago in January 2012 against Zimbabwe; the last against a major nation another four Tests before that.
The middle order, however, offers the hope of something better. Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, McCullum, Dean Brownlie and BJ Watling has a solid ring about it, although there is an argument that McCullum should be at No. 3 to allow Williamson to develop lower down. Watling, and to a lesser extent, Brownlie impressed for New Zealand XI in Queenstown, McCullum is in strong form and Taylor's hundred in the Napier ODI has put him back on track.
The public also need a team they are pulled into watching. Unlike with the rugby union side, there is not the expectation, or demand, that they will bring home the major prizes but neither is embarrassment accepted. New Zealand Test cricket desperately needs some good news over the next three weeks. A series win, though, would verge on miraculous.
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