England vs New Zealand: A chance for an upset.
So here we are, the first test of the summer. Lords is of course the venue and the teams are raring to go. New Zealand arrive as the world's number 2 ranked test side and are on top of the world after crushing home victories against the West Indies and Pakistan. England are hoping to recover from a dreadful winter and show once again that their new methods do work. What’s most entertaining about this series is that it will be almost the polar opposite of the one in 2015. In 2015 we saw the fastest ever hundred at Lords and in the second game absolute fireworks. This time round both teams have batting lineups who like to occupy the crease for long periods of time and bowlers who keep it tight give you nothing and wait for you to make a mistake or for them to bowl a magic ball. This series will be one for the traditionalists.
England came into this series on the back of a horror winter in India and a solid one in Sri Lanka. The batting lineup feels as settled as it has done in a while with England knowing who at least 5 of their top 7 will be for both games if not the whole summer. The bowlers are the same as ever but some fresh new faces and their new policy of rest and rotation will be new and improved ahead of this year.
England are of course without Stokes and whilst we all will acknowledge that yes this is huge I don’t think we understand just quite how big it is. Since the start of the 2019 home summer, in England, Ben Stokes averages 55 with the bat and 27 with the ball with 3 hundreds and 19 wickets. Stokes also is a master of nearly every situation. When England have won the toss and batted first (1 match) Stokes averages 44.50 but when they have lost the toss and been asked to bat (4 matches) he averages 97.80. In essence when conditions are tough and teams opt to bowl first Stokes is standing tall and providing England with a consistent base from which they can win games they really have no right to do so. Stokes is quickly becoming the most adaptable and versatile test cricketer in the world and his natural ability to, quite simply, win England game after game has been a major part of Englands success over the past 24 months. Furthermore England have built their side around their number 5 and with good reason he offers them something in every facet (though not at second slip) but naturally when you lose the fulcrum of your side everything seems apart with the 2017/18 Ashes being case and point. England don’t even have another all rounder to fill in and balance the side with both Sam Curran and Chris Woakes ‘rested’ due to the IPL. Englands side will feel naturally unbalanced and if the wicket is flat this may be a real issue for them with the lack of a 4th seamer. England will almost certainly have Dan Lawrence fill in at number 5 after both his impressive winter and his respectable start to the County season. Lawrence is of course no Stokes and the first test at least will be a big test for England with their more senior players needing to seriously step up to fill in the Durham man's boots.
Englands other biggest issue is their bowlers. Well to call it an issue would be to lie if i’m honest. Englands bowlers are not an issue in the sense that they aren’t good enough in fact it’s more that they are too good. England have a whole host of bowlers all of whom deserve to be in the starting Xi for this first test. Olly Stone and Mark Wood have both had superb starts in the County Championship claiming wickets and bowling at the speed of light, whilst Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton yet again reminded everyone that they are the two best bowlers in the county game and then Jimmy and Broady are Jimmy and Broady. England need to decide what bowlers they will play and who they want to play at what ground this summer: I mean do England play Stone at a flat one at Lords knowing they have a game at Edgbaston and Old Trafford this summer? Should Jimmy play at Edgbaston with the first game against India at Trent Bridge? England need to be careful in managing their bowlers' loads and getting the most out of them and it is the combination of these two that makes the difference and this is where they got it wrong last year. Playing Mark Wood over Stuart Broad at Southampton when it’s overcast and gloomy and when you have a game at a flat one at Old Trafford a week later was purely criminal and just poor planning but it was the right idea in principle. England has to get it right this summer. I mean they have the bowlers to do it, they have that luxury so why not use it. One of the large factors of Australias drawn ashes series was their smart use of all of their bowlers depending on the venue such as only playing Starc at Old Trafford where they knew his pace and bounce would be most effective. England should employ this strategy not only for this series but for the whole summer.
This series is huge for England as they wasted the chance to experiment slightly last summer some players will now be thrown in the deep end. Debuts will almost certainly be handed to Ollie Robinson and James Bracey this summer with both having solid starts to the summer and impressing over the winter. England need to view this series with an eye to the future simply as it is two matches and New Zealand will almost certainly be doing the same as they look ahead to the inaugural world test championship final.
Not since Australia 2015 has a team arrived in England with such a chance of actually winning as New Zealand do right now. In Jamieson, Wagner, Southee and Henry (with Trent Boult being rested for at least the first test) they have one of the worlds best seam attacks and when you add in a dark red Duke’s ball and a bit of English nibble this 4 prong attack comes into it’s own. However many teams have arrived in England with world class bowling attacks before, I mean Cummins Hazelwood and Pattinson or Ishant Shami and Bumrah aren’t exactly the easiest attacks to face, but often they can’t outbowl Broad and Anderson. Jimmy and Broady are masters of English conditions effectively making up a 3rd seamer all by themselves. Teams just cannot out do them with a Dukes ball as often one of their seamers just doesn’t cut the mustard. Cummins and Hazelwood were fantastic but the likes of Pattinson, Siddle and Starc just weren’t good enough; Ishant and Bumrah where magnificent but Mohammad Shami got dreadfully unlucky despite bowling well meaning that wickets weren’t falling with the same monotonous regularity as Broad and Anderson get. However New Zealands bowlers are bowling as well as they ever have. Since Jamiesons debut in 2020 this four man attack has arguably been the best in the world and have done it against some formidable batting line ups boasting some quality players. Kyle Jamieson is a master of the red ball extracting extravgant seam movement which will be vital in England. Tim Southee is one of the modern kings of swing and will strike fear into the heart of Englands top order especially the right handers with his superb natural away movement. Matt Henry is a strong seamer and his previously successful stint in county cricket bodes well with him getting a bowl in England. Whilst Neil Wagner is a seperate beast altogether with his long spells giving nothing to the batsmen making him a sort of psuedo spinner. New Zealand have a world class seam attack and it’s time for them to show their true worth in conditions that will suit them down to a tee. England will have their work cut out for them especially without either of their two second choice seamers in Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer. New Zealands bowling attack is firing to go and this time England will meet their match; it is possible we will see someone match the expertise of Broad and Anderson (though it’ll take 4 bowlers to do so).
The ultimate reason why teams lose is their batting. Often a player gets dropped midway through a series after being worked over by either Broad or Anderson and the batting unit as a whole just cannot buy a run as the conditions are so foreign to them. However with New Zealand it feels a bit different. In Williamson and Latham they have two of the great modern batsmen both of whom have toured England before and have had successful stints in County Cricket making good runs. Ross Taylor has been around forever and is doing England for what feels like 25th time and his nous and knowhow will be invaluable to the side. BJ Watling is another world class batsmen and with him retiring at the end of the Kiwis tour he really has something to play for and having made a superb hundred on the Kiwis last tour to England he will feel in good position to do so again. Tom Blundell will more than likely occupy the crease with Latham and has already proven he can make tricky runs on seaming wickets vs India whilst Devon Conway is looking more likely to make his debut with each passing day. Conway would almost certainly debut at the top of the order and with a FC average at 47 he could present Lathams perfect opening partner. Daryl Mitchell is another superb addition to the batting lineup whilst Henry Nicholls had a stellar 2020 averaging over 50 and making big hundreds. Many of the perceived weaknesses for a touring side New Zealand seem to have been covered and even their strength in depth is clear to see with the likes of Colin De Grandhomme waiting on the bench and Joe Root will be hoping that the mulleted giant stays put. New Zealand have a genuine chance of winning this series but as ever it will come down to which one of their bowlers bowls worst and how the lesser batsmen perform.
In terms of a series prediction I feel that England are on a hiding to nothing here. If they win then it’s expected and unless something truly magical happens this series will be forgotten in a year's time. However if they lose (which I ever increasingly feel will be the case) then their collosus of a year continues on a downward spiral. Losing in England is embarrassing and honestly if they get trampled could see the end of a few test careers. England needs to win this series simply because they cannot afford to lose this series. For my prediction I will go a simple 1-1 with England almost perfectly replicating their series against Pakistan in 2018 with them being outplayed at Lords then a seamer making his debut (mr Ollie Robinson) in the next game bowling well enough to be kept on vs India then being all over them like a rash. In all seriousness 1-1 is the most likely scoreline with both sides having enough star quality to win a game though, 2-0 or 1-0 either way is not off the table. England have a huge few months of test match cricket ahead and they need their star players and batting unit as a whole to become settled so by Old Trafford at the end of the summer (hopefullly with a few wins and a few Kohli ducks) the Xi almost picks itself. For New Zealand the real preparation for the world test championship final begins now with this being the ultimate warm up for the game itself. For me I cannot wait to watch what will be two high quality test matches filled with world class players and more than that fans. The English summer is starting and well who’s not excited?