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March 12, 2008
England's tour of New Zealand was earmarked in advance as a chance for a fresh start, but nobody quite envisaged how that declaration would manifest itself. After an irredeemably stale performance in Hamilton, England have dropped two of their oldest and most trusted stalwarts. Out went Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison, who have 460 Test wickets between them, and in came James Anderson and Stuart Broad, with their career tally of 63. A fresh start needed fresh blood. It only took a debacle such as Hamilton to awaken England to this fact.
It's a bold and decisive reaction from England's selection trio of Michael Vaughan, Peter Moores and the new addition, James Whitaker, whose presence in the set-up has helped add an outsider's perspective to the deliberations. If England cannot force victory in either of the remaining Tests in Wellington or Napier, they will have fallen to their third consecutive series defeat - a run of form they have not endured since the dog days of 1999-2000, when they slumped to the bottom of the world Test rankings. It was the unassuming New Zealanders who condemned them on that occasion too. The threat of history repeating itself was too real for comfort.
The decision must have been an awfully close-run thing. Up until the final moments before the team was unveiled to the media, there was still speculation that Harmison would survive the cut (let alone Hoggard, whose dismissal was a bolt from the blue). One group of people who were completely taken by surprise were the ground organisers at the Basin Reserve, who had arranged to whitewash a section of windows in the pavilion Long Room as an extension of the sightscreen to help protect the batsmen against Harmison's lanky lines of assault.
It wasn't until Moores and Vaughan were seen talking deeply to both men in the outfield that the penny began to drop. "It was a very tough call," Vaughan said "but we had a gut feeling that we needed to make a change. We all know how both of them can bowl and at the minute they are not bowling to the standards they set themselves. This is a great opportunity for Jimmy and Broady to establish themselves at this level."
To their credit, England didn't waver even after inspecting the greenest wicket that they've encountered all winter. The nets were fast and bouncy as well - so fast that the team's media man was spared the dubious honour of facing an over in them - and the overall impression was that a result was on the cards. It remains to be seen whether the cards that England have chosen are trumps.
One man who wasn't impressed with the conditions was New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori. The dry and lifeless Hamilton track suited his disciplined attack and more of the same would have helped his series prospects.
"I think it'll be a good wicket but I am surprised at the conditions," Vettori said. "We were pleased with the way things went in Hamilton but groundsmen are their own entity and they can do what they want with their wickets.
"I think there is a lot of grass on the wicket," said Vettori, who indicated he might be tempted to bowl first if he won the toss. "Some of it is hard and some of it is new but, like Hamilton, you can turn up here and know the conditions. It's all swing in the morning and you can make the most of those conditions. I'd say I'm 50-50 at this stage on whether we'll bat or bowl."
The conditions are bad news for New Zealand's second spinner, Jeetan Patel, who played an impressive role in England's tortuous first innings in Hamilton. He will make way for specialist seamer Mark Gillespie, who recently recovered both from a long-term shoulder injury and a minor calf strain. He will be playing his second Test, after making his debut in South Africa in November last year.
"I'd say we're leaning towards the seamer but that's not set in stone either," Vettori said. "I think we are looking at all the options. John and I have discussed it and both of us were unsettled in terms of what we needed on this wicket on the first morning. If you need your out-and-out seamer that would be Mark, and if you're looking at the end of a Test match, there is a role for a Grant-type bowler and a Jeetan-type bowler. We will wait till tomorrow morning, take a look at the overhead conditions, and go from there." However, it was later confirmed that Gillespie was included in the starting XI.
New Zealand expect England to come back strongly. "Confidence can turn pretty quickly," Vettori said. "If we can turn up on the first morning and do a job, with bat or ball, then hopefully we can carry on. But if England turn up and turn the tables quickly, then they'll be the ones carrying the confidence.
"I'm expecting them to come very strong," said Vettori. "They're a resolute side and very well-led. I know Michael will be asking a lot of them. There is personal pride at stake as well. Their guys will want to put in performances that are worthy of their ability."
Vettori had no doubts about his own side's intentions either. Despite the huge satisfaction of the victory in the first Test, he was confident that they would be able to start again from scratch and build towards victory in a manner as resolute as in Hamilton. "Good teams are able to do that," he said. "You look at Australia, who have been able to produce good performances in any conditions. While I'm not saying we're comparing ourselves to the Australians, if we want to be become a consistently good side then we have to turn up time again and perform in any conditions."
Much the same could be said of the England side. When Hoggard and Harmison were in their pomp in the years 2004 and 2005, the team did just that to the tune of six series wins in a row, in venues as diverse as Johannesburg and Bridgetown. Time has moved on since then, however, and now too has the team. Thursday is the second Test of the series, but the first Test of a new generation.
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 Stuart Broad, 9 Ryan Sidebottom, 10 James Anderson, 11 Monty Panesar.
New Zealand 1 Jamie How, 2 Matthew Bell, 3 Stephen Fleming, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Mathew Sinclair, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 Daniel Vettori (capt), 9 Mark Gillespie, 10 Kyle Mills, 11 Chris Martin.
As West Indies play their 500th Test, here's an interactive journey through their Test history