England are Test 'giants' - McCullum
Alastair Cook expects England will have to work hard to exert their predicted superiority against New Zealand, but opposing captain Brendon McCullum has labelled the visiting side 'giants' of Test cricket as he laid down the challenge to his team.
In their Test history New Zealand have only eight wins against England, are currently eighth in the rankings and two matches ago were skittled for 45. Cook's team, meanwhile, secured a historic win in India before Christmas (something Australia will find tough to match), have a top seven where only one batsman does not average over 40, a pace attack that includes two of the in-form quicks in the world and one of the leading spinners on the scene.
"We know this is a huge series, we are taking on one of giants of the Test game and on the back of a tough South Africa series we know the importance of us showing a fighting spiriting for cricket in this country," McCullum said. "They aren't one of the best teams in the world for no reason so we know the magnitude of the challenge."
Cook is rightly confident of the players at his disposal, but was not going to be drawn into believing that the series was a foregone conclusion. Events of 2012 for England which, despite victory in India, included seven Test defeats (equaling their worst year) and the problems involving Kevin Pietersen has made Cook aware how swiftly fortunes can change.
"If we play to our potential we're going to be a hard side to beat," Cook said. "But you've got to do that to earn the right to get into good positions to win games of cricket. That's our challenge, to produce match-winning performances."
New Zealand's biggest problem has been putting consistently large totals on the board to give their improving bowling attack a chance. If you exclude Tests against Zimbabwe, New Zealand's score of 412 in Colombo last year (the match they won to level the series) was their first total of 400-plus since the tour of India in 2010.
With that in mind, some structural changes have taken place with McCullum returning to the middle order in an aim to stack that area with experience. The comeback of Ross Taylor, whose absence left a massive hole in South Africa, also means that there is a less callow feel about the line-up although, in the endless search of an opening pair, another new combination will be tried at the top. There is a sense that New Zealand will accept being 20 for 2.
"We've made a couple of changes to the balance of a line up," McCullum said. "That was what we spoke about after South Africa, playing six batters and strengthening that area so for us it's about making sure we get some good runs on the board to give ourselves an opportunity with the ball. If we take it as deep as we can you never know what we can achieve late in the game.
"We needed to make sure we firm up certain areas and get run production from our batters. Adding that extra batter, and shifting the experience to the middle order, should enable us to score runs later. The bowling line-up has the ability, on their day, to really test opposition."
England have a world-class opener in Cook - one of the most prolific in the game at the moment - but the role of his partner is still to be fully cemented by Nick Compton and provides a small opening for New Zealand. Compton passed 30 in four of his eight innings against India (one of them unbeaten in a small run chase in Mumbai) and Cook believes he has the ability to replicate his hunger for big hundreds in county cricket on the Test stage.
"The starts he got there, in different conditions to what he's used to, show he can adapt his game to international cricket," Cook said. "I think he'd be the first to admit he got those starts without kicking on.
"One of his great strengths, when he plays for Somerset, and the reason he forced his way into this England side was that when he got in he went big. It was slightly unusual that didn't happen. But I've got no concerns about that, because that's why he got picked.
"I think that single-mindedness that he's got means when he gets in, he's very hard to get out. I'd just love to see him get in and get that one big score which will get him up and running. He's definitely got the class to do that at international level."
Although England never name a team before a toss, Cook was delighted with the workload put in by Stuart Broad during the warm-up match and said he got through more overs than had been expected in Queenstown. Broad, who has been troubled by a heel injury since the India tour, is set to regain the third fast-bowling slot but Cook is aware that workloads will be a major issue over the next 12 months which includes 15 Tests.
"We know how injury, especially for fast bowlers, plays a very important part. I think we're very lucky with the strength in depth (we have) in that department, and we can rotate players if we need to or - if someone gets injured - replace them with a guy of very similar ability and class."
Meanwhile, New Zealand's Test programme continues to shrink with India's visit set to be trimmed to two Tests. McCullum is determined to show they can still be a force in the longer format. "We were competitive throughout the T20 and ODI series, but Test cricket is where the public want to see, and where we want to show, improvement."
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo