England look to regain lost ground
From humble acorns grow mighty oaks. That's the sort of philosophy that England's cricketers have in mind at the moment, as they prepare to arrest their troubling slide down the world rankings and start afresh in the first Test against New Zealand at Hamilton. After consecutive series defeats against India and Sri Lanka, their worst run of Test form for six years, the onus is on Michael Vaughan and his men to bounce back to winning ways, and fast. To that end, the sleepy province of Waikato, far removed from the hype that has tracked them on previous tours, provides the perfect opportunity for the squad to regain their touch.
"These are exciting times at the beginning of a series," said Vaughan. "This is a relatively new team in a country that we haven't played that many games, and this is the start of a time when we feel we can play some good cricket. These conditions should suit our style of play, and we've got six games over the next few weeks against New Zealand to get our Test match game back on track." That's the theory at any rate. England will start this series as favourites through weight of expectation as much as anything else, but that tag hardly helped their cause during the recent one-day series, when they were soundly thumped 3-1 over the five matches, including an embarrassing ten-wicket drubbing on this very ground. "Within our group we'll take the confidence of a good one-day win and take that momentum forward," said New Zealand's captain, Daniel Vettori. "There's a lot of things we can carry on into the Test series."
If Vettori sounded demure about New Zealand's series prospects, then it was a deliberate tactic. He's quite content to embrace the role of the underdog in a form of the game that is becoming increasingly rare for his countrymen. In the 15 months since the start of 2007, New Zealand have played just four Tests - and two of those were against Bangladesh. "We have been a good one-day team for a long time, but we haven't been a very good Test team for a long time," Vettori said. "We know England are a good team, and their top six batsmen all average over 40. When you've got that in a set-up it makes a huge difference."
It was the failures of that top six, however, that contributed significantly to their loss against Sri Lanka before Christmas. Only one century was recorded in three Tests, and that came from Alastair Cook on the very last day of the series. No wonder England have decided now is the time to draw the line. The freshness of their new start was epitomised by Vaughan in an upbeat pre-match press conference, in which he even broke with modern tradition and announced his team a full 24 hours in advance.
There were no surprises in the line-up - Paul Collingwood and Ryan Sidebottom have recovered from their respective hamstring strains, Tim Ambrose makes his debut as expected (something that was on the cards even before his understudy, Phil Mustard, had his nose broken by Kevin Pietersen in the nets) while Andrew Strauss returns for his 44th cap, after being dropped for the first time in his career ahead of the Sri Lanka tour.
Strauss's selection for this series caused a frisson of controversy - Alec Stewart, among others, questioned how anyone can become a better player by sitting on the sofa - but the class and quality of his warm-up century in Dunedin was confirmation that a rare break from the grind had done his cricket the world of good. Ever since his form deserted him in last winter's Ashes, England have missed the calmness of his accumulation, and moreover, he knows the Hamilton pitch well, having scored a century here during his final game for Northern Districts last month.
"Straussy's back and mentally refreshed, and playing well," said Vaughan. His return to the side will be at No. 3, a position he hasn't played since his early days at Middlesex, although the man himself was unfazed at the prospect when asked about it in Dunedin. "The feeling was for me and Alastair Cook to carry on where we left off in Sri lanka, where we were reasonably successful," said Vaughan. "We complement each other well as a left-hand, right-hand partnership, and Andrew seemed to fit in at 3 nicely in the three-day game, so hopefully he'll take that form on."
Vaughan's confidence was palpable, but he's overseen enough disappointing performances in recent months to realise that a hint of caution was essential. "Favourites is the tag we've been given, and the bookies don't get it wrong that often, but whether we start as favourites or underdogs makes no difference," he said. "We have to go out there and fight, respect the opposition and the situations that we get ourselves into, and if we get on top, we have to stay on top and really capitalise. Before you start thinking about winning, you've got to go through the hard work."
The wicket will be something of an unknown quantity, seeing as it has been completely relaid since the last time a Test was held at Hamilton, in 2003-04, when it cracked up so severely that the groundsman had to repair it in the middle of the match. Vettori's instinct was that it was dry and would take spin, and so Jeetan Patel is in line to partner him in what will be only his second Test. However, heavy drizzle on Tuesday afternoon, with more forecast for the morning of the match, may yet cause a reassessment, in which case Mark Gillespie will step in as the fourth seamer, after Iain O'Brien hurt his big toe during net practice.
But whatever lies in store, Vaughan was confident he had the armoury to cope. "We've got Monty [Panesar] in our set-up which we know will put the New Zealand batsmen under pressure," he said, "and if it does spin, then reverse swing might come into play. We feel we've got two or three options of good reverse-swing bowlers, so we've got all bases covered." Panesar enters the series with something of a point to prove, but Vaughan was confident that his "blip" in Sri Lanka, where he picked up eight wickets at 50.62, would not be readily repeated. "You have to respect the fact Sri Lanka played him well and the wickets were flat, and it wasn't easy by any means," said Vaughan. "But Monty's had such a great start to his international career, and if you put Daniel Vettori where Monty is at the same age, Monty is probably slightly ahead."
In fact, that is not strictly true - by the time he was 26, the age that Panesar turns in April, Vettori had 208 wickets to Monty's 81. But as a left-arm spinner at the top of his trade, there is no bowler better suited to being Panesar's role model. "It's a bit of a brotherhood," said Vettori. "I sit back and enjoy watching other spinners around the world, and Panesar's no different. If we are looking to go in with two spinners then Monty's going to play a key part in the england set-up. We know what a job he can do, so we can respect him but also find ways to score off him."
There are few tricks of the trade that Vettori has not already divulged, however, thanks to Panesar's intensely inquisitive nature. A rain-ruined University fixture at Fenner's on New Zealand's last tour of England in 2004 provided the young Monty the perfect opportunity to milk his opponent for all his know-how. "It's usually a good couple of hours' sit-down with him," said Vettori. "He doesn't let you off the hook."
If Vettori is saying the same about Panesar's bowling in five days' time, then England's bright new dawn may well have just begun.
New Zealand (probable) 1 Matthew Bell, 2 Jamie How, 3 Stephen Fleming, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Mathew Sinclair, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendan McCullum (wk), 8 Daniel Vettori (capt), 9 Kyle Mills, 10 Jeetan Patel, 11 Chris Martin.
England 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Michael Vaughan (capt), 3 Andrew Strauss, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Paul Collingwood, 7 Tim Ambrose (wk), 8 Ryan Sidebottom, 9 Steve Harmison, 10 Matthew Hoggard, 11 Monty Panesar.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo