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England vs New Zealand Tests are pretty much all about money, but that's not unusual

'There is a hunger for the simple pleasures of our great game: never again will we take them for granted'

George Dobell
George Dobell
The problem with cynics is they're so often right. So, the cheque usually isn't in the post, they probably aren't just friends and driving to Barnard Castle almost certainly isn't the best way to check your eyesight.
So, yes, let's be frank: the England and New Zealand series has been poured onto a schedule that is already saturated in order to keep the broadcasters sweet. It is, pretty much, all about money.
But that really isn't such an unusual situation. It's the reason last summer's cricket took place behind closed doors, the reason the England team are on a never-ending tour and the reason we're about to a have a third IPL 'window' within 12 months. Hell, it's the reason most of us drag ourselves to work on a Monday morning. Anyone shocked by the revelation that sport and money shacked up years ago really hasn't been paying attention.
Besides, for most cricket lovers, this series is a very welcome addition. With England not having played in front of a home crowd in Test cricket for 21 months, there is a hunger for the simple pleasures of our great game: never again will we take them for granted. Yes, it's a shame that Lord's will be only a quarter full. But with the knowledge that bigger crowds will follow and combined with news that the UK has just experienced its first day without a Covid-related death in well over a year and that the vaccine roll-out continues at a pace, this really should feel like a celebration.
For these are two well-contested and high quality teams. And while the absence of Trent Boult does weaken New Zealand, they are still (arguably, at least) in the strongest era in their history. The last Test they played on this ground, in 2015, was one of the classics and the last international, in 2019, produced one of the most memorable finishes in history. They're a good side and, win, lose or tie, they've provide an excellent advert for the sport.
It's worth thinking back to that World Cup final for a moment. And perhaps worth thinking of the fallout had one or two other sides been as unfortunate to finish on the losing side. No doubt, in time, the result would have stood. But would it have stood with the same good grace and phlegmatism demonstrated by Kane Williamson and co? Or would it have been like Donald Trump contesting the election result?
Either way, Williamson made it clear he was "looking forward and not backwards". And why wouldn't he? New Zealand still have plenty to play for and could be within a few weeks of the great triumph of their cricketing history. Remember, the population if New Zealand is under five million. And cricket comes in as an also-ran among the most popular sports in the country behind every code of rugby you can think of and a few you probably can't.
With the World Test Championship final looming, they can use these two games to fine-tune plans and grow accustomed to the Dukes ball. Their success in New Zealand has been built, on the whole, on a traditional brand of Test cricket which involves making big first-innings runs and finding ways to whittle out the opposition on flat tracks. Much the same could be said about India, the recent tour by England being the obvious aberration.
But Tests in England in recent years have been played in very different fashion: something approaching fast-forward, with bowlers generally on top. Talk from the England management suggests a preference for slightly better batting tracks this year as they seek to recover from the traumas of India and build towards the Ashes. But if those surfaces - and that Dukes ball - plays anything like they have in the last few years, New Zealand's opportunity to acclimatise before the WTC final could be significant.
Both New Zealand and India will also provide a timely barometer of England's progress. As the two best sides in the world, they are well equipped to challenge England's unbeaten home record which stretches back to 2014. If it is still in place at the end of the summer, England can congratulate themselves in a job well done. They will also go into the Ashes with confidence relatively high.
It's a bizarre situation when a team uses its matches against the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the world to prepare for a series against the No. 4 side. But such is the status in which the Ashes is still held in England. Whether that is healthy or helpful is a different point entirely.
They're not quite as impoverished in selection terms as they might have you believe, either. They are probably only two indisputably top players absent in Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer with the batting right down to No. 5 or so pretty much first-choice. The bowling attack, too, is going to look rather familiar with James Anderson and Stuart Broad likely to be back in tandem.
It caps a remarkable comeback from Broad. Ahead of the first Test of last summer, he was dropped leading many of us to suggest it was the beginning of the end of his career.
We should have known better. His hunger for this game and this stage remains unsated and he has reinvented himself in recent years as a highly intelligent fast medium seamer in the classic English definition. Whether he and Anderson remain ideal choices for the Ashes is debatable. As is the relevance of the question. England can't afford to experiment much against opposition of this quality.
Without a recognised allrounder - be it Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran or Moeen Ali - England will find it almost impossible to balance their side. Ultimately, it seems England's final choice will come down to a decision between a fourth seamer, in either Mark Wood or Ollie Robinson, or a specialist spinner, in Jack Leach. The fact that Joe Root admitted he had "gained a little more confidence" in himself as a bowler after his performances over the winter suggests England were minded to opt for the extra seamers before the fine weather of recent days.
Among the other areas highlighted for improvement by Root was the requirement for more lower-order runs. It's true that when they won the Ashes in 2015, for example, the lower-order often provided key contributions with the bat. Root might reflect, though, that it remains the job of the top-order to score the bulk of the runs.
We could be cynical, too, about the 'moment of unity' ahead of the game. Particularly as it comes at a venue where prices tend to limit the chances of inclusivity. But neither team had to make such a gesture and England are committed to adding action to their words in the coming months. There's a lot to like about these sides and the prospect of this series.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo