England's tour of New Zealand begins in earnest on Tuesday, when Paul Collingwood leads his side out for their opening Twenty20 fixture at Auckland, against a Kiwi opposition that has been severely depleted by injuries and unavailability.
Three of New Zealand's most accomplished limited-overs batsmen - Nathan Astle, Stephen Fleming and Craig McMillan - have retired in the last 12 months, while their captain Daniel Vettori, who was rated as the most valuable bowler at last September's ICC World Twenty20, is missing with an ankle injury. In addition, they will have to make do without the services of their spearhead, Shane Bond, whose contract has been terminated after he signed for the rebel Indian Cricket League.
Collingwood, however, is guarding against complacency. New Zealand were, after all, semi-finalists in the World Twenty20 while England failed to beat a single senior nation in their brief campaign. "We're not going to take them lightly," he said. "They've lost a couple of their more experienced players but they are a dangerous side and they always have been.
"We expect them to be as tough and competitive as ever and we'll be telling the players that," said Collingwood. "It's the start of our tour and we need to go out there and set our standards from ball one. It's a long tour for all of us and hopefully we'll set off on the right note. It will set the tone for the tour if we play well in this match with good, aggressive cricket."
England have yet to finalise their side, largely because of the complication provided by the early-tour form of Alastair Cook. He made 51 and 138 not out in England's two warm-up matches, and though he was initially being bracketed as a Test specialist, all that may now have to change. "There are a few tough decisions to make," said Collingwood. "We've got quite a few players in good form and it's going to be hard to get it down to the final XI."
New Zealand, meanwhile, will be led by their explosive wicketkeeper-batsman, Brendon McCullum, who last month scored an incredible 80 not out from 28 balls to destroy single-handedly Bangladesh at Queenstown. "Tomorrow presents a tremendous opportunity for a couple of players to stand up and see what they've got at international level," said McCullum. "The team we do have is young, it's fresh and I see it as pretty exciting. If all goes well I think we've got the make-up to thrill a lot of people."
McCullum's opening partner could be a potential star of the future. Jesse Ryder is a 23-year-old left-hander whose spats with New Zealand Cricket have been as explosive as his batting. But circumstance has forced the hands of the selectors, and McCullum for one is delighted his team-mate has been given the chance. "He's an amazing talent," he said. "This guy hits the ball as hard as anyone going around the country and you can't keep talent like that on the sidelines for too long."
Ryder has been criticised for his weight problems but Anthony Stuart, the Wellington coach, believes he is now suited to international cricket. "If I was involved with England I'd be trying to make life as difficult as possible for him," Stuart told the Dominion Post. "He's got to be prepared for that but I think deep down he's actually quite a level-headed guy and not a lot seems to faze him."
The 19-year-old seamer, Tim Southee, could also make his debut as a replacement for Bond. He had originally been preparing for the forthcoming Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia, but was promoted to the senior squad after impressing the chairman of selectors, Sir Richard Hadlee. "It's going to be a great series," said McCullum. "We've got two evenly-matched teams and I guess whichever team can hit their straps and get hot will probably be the team that comes out on top."
New Zealand (probable) 1 Brendon McCullum (capt, wk), 2 Jesse Ryder, 3 Peter Fulton, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Scott Styris. 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Kyle Mills, 8 Paul Hitchcock, 9 Chris Martin, 10 Tim Southee, 11 Jeetan Patel.
England (probable) 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Phil Mustard (wk), 3 Kevin Pietersen, 4 Ian Bell, 5 Paul Collingwood (capt), 6 Owais Shah, 7 Luke Wright, 8 Dimitri Mascarenhas, 9 Graeme Swann, 10 Ryan Sidebottom, 11 James Anderson.