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Tour match toil serves England reminder of daunting New Zealand challenge

Sam Curran won selection ahead of Chris Woakes but went wicketless Getty Images

England 26 for 1 trail New Zealand A 302 for 6 dec (Phillips 116, Rutherford 59, Blundell 60) by 276 runs

If England had any doubts about the magnitude of the task facing them over the next few weeks, they will have been dispelled by a tough day in the field in Whangarei.

Unable to coax movement from the ball or life from the surface, they were instead obliged to wait for the declaration from a New Zealand A batting line-up containing three men with Test experience. Glenn Phillips, a 22-year-old batsman with more than a hint of Steve Smith about him, recorded the fourth century of his first-class career and England conceded 3.59 runs an over.

The loss of Rory Burns, who cut a long-hop to point moments before the close, rounded off the challenge. The appearance of Jack Leach as nightwatchman seemed an oddly negative response. The purpose of such games is, after all, to put players under pressure in order to prepare for challenges to come.

Afterwards, Darren Gough - England's short-term bowling consultant - was full of empathy for his charges. He had his share of such days, after all. But, among the words of support and respect, there was a reminder that the best, as he put it, "find a way" to succeed in such conditions.

ALSO READ: Curran set for Test berth ahead of Woakes

"The way I look at it," Gough said, "is that New Zealand's bowlers, Trent Boult and Tim Southee, bowl at 85mph and they somehow find a way to take wickets on New Zealand pitches. The ball has to swing here, because they are swing bowlers and they have good records. You have to find a way."

Ben Stokes suggested that the pitch was "seriously flat" and that it had provided a useful challenge. "[It was] a bit surprising," he told Test Match Special, "but that's a great test for us as a bowling group to be exposed to. It was a great opportunity for us to try a few different things; set different fields, bowl to different plans that we normally wouldn't."

As ever with such warm-up games, it probably pays not to read too much into the statistics. Many of this England side are now pretty experienced and will not be striving for peak performance in such circumstances. It's all about being ready for next week.

But it was, Jofra Archer aside, hard to see where England were going to find the weapons to damage New Zealand. On these surfaces, with this ball, Kane Williamson looks a desperately tough proposition.

Archer's third spell was probably the day's highlight from an England perspective. Generating sharp pace from a docile wicket and an old ball, he unsettled the batsmen with some well-directed short-balls. Phillips took one blow to the forearm and was thrown off his feet as he jerked his head out of the way of another. Earlier Hamish Rutherford had been struck on the side of the head by an Archer bouncer, but looked in excellent touch before departing in somewhat unfortunate fashion as he feathered an edge down the leg side.

England's problem, though, is that their opposition know Archer cannot bowl forever. And with no Mark Wood or Olly Stone in reserve, it is hard to build the required intensity from an attack that lacks the pace to sustain Archer's threat. Stokes could, perhaps, fulfil the role of fast-bowling foil to Archer - he certainly bowled fast enough on slow surfaces in Sri Lanka - but in this game, understandably, was probably holding back just a little.

While Stuart Broad struck early, neither he or Sam Curran carried much threat for the rest of the day. Curran came back pretty well after a disappointing first spell but he could face a tough series if he is unable to coax any swing from these balls. Stokes, while expensive, took two quick wickets after deceiving Tim Seifert with what appeared to be a slower ball and then saw Jimmy Neesham play-on as he attempted a forcing stroke. Leach conceded three fours in five deliveries at one stage but only conceded one more in his 26 overs. Again, there is nothing in these conditions for Leach but if he can restrict the scoring rate to 2.15 an over as he did here, he can feel he has done a decent job for his team.

One thing is certain: if England are to win here for the first time since 2008, they will have to hold their catches. On the first day of this match, Dom Sibley, at second slip, put down a relatively simple stomach-height offered by Phillips on 27 off Stokes. These things happen, of course, but they are starting to happen just a little more often than can be ignored. Tom Blundell was reprieved on 60, too, when it caught behind off what turned out to be a no-ball, though he was very well caught at midwicket next ball.

There was also an injury scare. Joe Root was forced off the field for a while after landing heavily when diving to prevent a boundary at long-on. He was subsequently diagnosed with a jarred hip, but returned to field well before stumps. It is not anticipated there will be lasting consequences.

In the longer-term, Gough felt Saqib Mahmood could be the sort of bowler who could make inroads in such conditions. With his pace, his somewhat slingy action and a willingness to pitch the ball full, he would appear to have the ingredients to reverse this kookaburra ball as Gough once did. "He's different to the others," Gough said. "He's another option when the pitch is flat. We're working on reverse. He has the natural talent to do it and he's desperate to be better at it. He's keen to learn."

Some may point to Curran's figures and suggest Chris Woakes was unfortunate to miss out here. And it is true that Woakes, with his extra pace, can at least force batsmen on to the back foot a little more readily. He also feels his recently-acquired ability to bowl the wobble seam gives him a new weapon in such conditions. But it's not as if he has not had chances in such circumstances and it may well be wishful thinking to suggest he would have provided any more of a cutting edge. As Gough said later, while recognising Woakes' skills, "whether he has to do something different to the past away from home, it will be interesting to see if he gets an opportunity and realises that." The slightly depressing truth is, after years of playing county cricket on seaming wickets and with a Dukes ball, there are very few England bowlers who will flourish in these conditions.

"I've not seen a swinging ball in the two weeks I've been here," Gough said, though he did admit he had managed to swing it in the nets. "At about 70 mph. And that's a big difference. If it swings, it will be for the first eight or nine overs."

Whatever happens on this tour, the influence of Gough has been perceived as a success. The combination of a fresh voice and his vast experience have provided new ideas to experienced bowlers who have probably heard rather a lot of the familiar, somewhat homogenised ECB voices. Gough, positive but prepared to offer some home truths where necessary, has encouraged new ideas. It seems unlikely he will be lured into anything like a full-time role - he enjoys his radio job too much for that - but conversations about future consultancy spells with England's bowlers are ongoing.

NZ A 3rd innings Partnerships

WktRunsPlayers
1st2TL SeifertR Ravindra
2nd31GD PhillipsR Ravindra
3rd37DJ MitchellGD Phillips
4th16JDS NeeshamDJ Mitchell
5th6DJ MitchellTA Blundell
6th7TA BlundellKA Jamieson
7th5SC KuggeleijnKA Jamieson
8th25WER SomervilleSC Kuggeleijn
9th40WER SomervilleAY Patel