Tour and tournament reports

England vs New Zealand in 2021

A review of England vs New Zealand, 2021

Simon Wilde
Devon Conway is embraced by Neil Wagner on reaching 200, 1st LV= Insurance Test, England vs New Zealand, 2nd day, Lord's, June 3, 2021

Devon Conway is embraced by Neil Wagner on reaching 200  •  Getty Images

Test matches (2): England 0, New Zealand 1
Two-Test series are rarely satisfactory. The better ones tend to leave everyone wanting more; many lack a narrative. In this instance, the storyline was writ large. New Zealand were among the best drilled and most organised teams to visit this country for years, while England were incoherent, disjointed and muddled - more so than in any home series since they fell prey to infighting during South Africa's visit in 2012. It was an unimpressive start for a streamlined management team, operating for the first time since the dismantling of Ed Smith's role as national selector, and the passing of the reins to head coach Chris Silverwood.
The games were a late addition to the schedule, and not part of the World Test Championship. They were designed to boost ECB coffers after the financial losses caused by the pandemic, and capitalise on the public's hunger for live sport. As it turned out, the government were not ready to permit full houses: the First Test at Lord's operated at 25% capacity, although the Second at Edgbaston rose to 70%, since it was designated as a "return to crowds" test event. Spectators had to provide evidence of a recent negative lateral-flow test, and agree to undergo a follow-up PCR test.
Even so, this was heady stuff for players and public after the empty terraces of 2020. For the first three days, Edgbaston was at its vibrant best. It was a pity, then, that the home side gave their fans so little to cheer. For New Zealand, the purpose of the Tests was clear: to win a series in England for the first time since 1999, and to prepare for the World Test Championship final against India. That was scheduled to start four days after Edgbaston, although New Zealand completed a stunning victory at a venue regarded as an English fortress with almost two days to spare.
It was England's first home Test-series defeat since Sri Lanka prevailed in 2014, when they won with a ball to spare in Leeds after escaping defeat at Lord's by the skin of their teeth. This time, it was the hosts who wriggled free at Lord's, thanks in part to a third-day washout. Otherwise, New Zealand would probably have won both games, and secured their most decisive result in England in the 90 years since their first Test tour.
England had neither Jofra Archer nor Ben Stokes, both recovering from injury. But they grew obsessed with managing players through a packed schedule so they might peak for the Ashes at the end of the year. The most controversial move was to rest all those involved in the IPL, even though it had been suspended on May 4, four weeks before the Lord's Test, because of the pandemic. While it was true the returnees had to serve a period of quarantine, and fast bowlers need to build up workloads before playing a Test, the approach looked unnecessarily rigid, and was surely self-defeating.
Those who might have featured, but did not, were first-choice keeper-batsman Jos Buttler, and Chris Woakes and Sam Curran, potent bowlers in English conditions. Woakes was even asked if he wanted to play the Second Test, at his home ground, but declined. This was a player who had spent much of the winter inside the team bubble without any game-time; offered a chance, he passed it up. Like a few others, he appeared in the Vitality Blast the day the Test finished. To complicate matters further, two potential replacements for Buttler were ruled out: Jonny Bairstow was part of the IPL group, while Ben Foakes, named in the original squad, slipped in his socks during a county match at The Oval, and tore a hamstring, sidelining him for three months.
The upshot was that Gloucestershire's James Bracey, who had spent much of the previous year in the bubble as a batting reserve, made his debut. He had kept wicket in six Championship matches earlier in the season, but only 17 times in all first-class cricket; his inexperience showed in some of his glovework, while his batting was a disaster.
The cricket was only part of England's problems. The players had committed to an anti-discrimination campaign, having undergone pre-season training workshops. But their decision to wear slogan-laden T-shirts before play on the opening day at Lord's backfired when historical racist and sexist tweets by Ollie Robinson, making his debut, resurfaced that afternoon. He performed with commendable focus during the Test - taking seven wickets, and justifying his claim that he knew how to trap Kane Williamson - but was compelled to make a public apology on the first evening; it was clear further action would follow.
England captain Joe Root called the tweets "not acceptable", and said Robinson had made a "huge mistake"; ECB chief executive Tom Harrison said he did "not have the words to express" his disappointment. After the game, the board suspended Robinson from international cricket while they investigated the matter. When questionable tweets from other England players emerged before the Second Test, the ECB said they would also look at the broader issue of how to deal with historical social-media material. Three weeks later, the Cricket Discipline Commission handed Robinson an eight-match ban, five of which were suspended for two years, and a fine of £3,200. (Since he had already missed three games - one for England, two for Sussex - he was free to play again.) The CDC also recommended he participate in social-media and anti-discrimination training programmes.
New Zealand took their own challenges in their stride. Some of their leading players had also been at the IPL, and most spent time in the Maldives rather than return home, in order to minimise quarantine time. Trent Boult did go back to see his family, and missed the First Test, but joined the tour in time to take the new ball in the Second (and claim six wickets). Everyone quarantined on arrival in the UK, and New Zealand had to make do with intra-squad training at their Rose Bowl base. They shuffled their XI in order to give players match time ahead of the World Test Championship final, and also had to deal with injuries to Williamson, Mitchell Santner and B-J. Watling, on his final tour before retirement. As a result, they made six changes between games - only Neil Wagner was a member of both attacks - and picked more players (17) in a two-Test series than any touring team in history. But the transition appeared seamless, and they pushed on for their first series win in Australia, England, India or South Africa in 21 attempts dating back 22 years.
The Tests were played on pitches less green and more dry than usual for early June, in an attempt by England to hone the art of taking 20 wickets on unhelpful surfaces. If they wanted to make their bowlers work harder, they got their wish, in part because even James Anderson, who had a quiet series, was unable to swing the ball as consistently as the New Zealanders. The overthinking did not stop there. Without Stokes, Woakes or Curran to balance the side, England decided they could not afford the luxury of picking first-choice spinner Jack Leach and, for the first time since 2001 against Pakistan, they eschewed a specialist slow bowler in a home series. New Zealand, by contrast, deployed a spinner in both games, and left-armer Ajaz Patel's four wickets proved crucial at Edgbaston.
The relative experience of the sides was telling. New Zealand contained a large group who had reached cricketing maturity: seven had played over 50 Tests, and Henry Nicholls had 40 by the end of the tour. And in 29-year-old Devon Conway, they found a newcomer ready-made for top-class action. He had learned the game in southern Africa (like Colin de Grandhomme, Wagner and Watling), and played more than 100 times at first-class level. His painstaking double-century on debut at Lord's broke records and English spirits, and set the tone for the tour. By contrast, England possessed three with over 100 Tests - at Edgbaston, Anderson passed Alastair Cook as the country's most-capped player - but no else had more than 25. They were unlucky that a low catch by Zak Crawley early in Conway's first-innings 80 at Edgbaston was ruled not out, though their fielding lacked sharpness. New Zealand caught practically everything.
England's batting attracted severe criticism. Rory Burns scored 132 and 81 in the two first innings, but received little support, and the temperament and technique of the younger guard came under scrutiny. Bracey began with two ducks, while Dan Lawrence also made two, either side of an attractive unbeaten 81; Ollie Pope reached 19 in each of his four innings without passing 23. In private, Root seemed to share the doubts of the former England captains who piled in. Beforehand, he had talked about winning all seven Tests of the summer but, when Williamson set a generous target of 273 in 75 overs at Lord's, Root was content for his side to block for the draw, and take the brickbats that followed.
It all raised the familiar question of whether county cricket was producing Test-class players, although Will Young, who replaced the injured Williamson for the second game (and played the longest innings of the match), had tuned up with two Championship centuries for Durham. England's collective batting average of 24 was their lowest in a home series of more than one match since 2000. While New Zealand headed for glory on the south coast, the direction of Root's side was less clear.