It took 48 years and 48 attempts for New Zealand to taste their first Test victory against England – Richard Hadlee inspiring this slice of history at windy Wellington in 1978 – but when the two sides meet at Lord’s next week it will be the visitors who do so from a position of relative superiority.
There will be inevitable references to the last time the two countries locked horns in NW8 – shut your eyes and you can still hear Ian Smith’s commentary at the end of that heart-stopping World Cup final in 2019 . Yet, on paper at least, the margin of difference in the longest format is perhaps not quite so bare.
Either way, the most heartening news is that crowds return for the first time since that golden summer. Lord’s is not part of the pilot scheme for sporting events, meaning a 25% capacity cap and around 7,500 spectators a day, but the prospect of wickets and runs being met with applause and not stony silence is seriously enticing.
No Test should ever be billed a warm-up but the two-match series does serve as ideal preparation for New Zealand before next month’s World Test Championship final against India in Southampton. It offers a chance for batsmen and bowlers to get to grips with the Dukes ball, the surfaces and the vagaries of the overhead conditions.
Kane Williamson’s men are a settled, well-drilled unit who, in the image of their captain, appear devoid of ego. That said, the rise to second in the world Test rankings has been built exclusively off the back of an impressive home record: they have won 10 of their past 11 series in New Zealand, but in the same period have toured twice, drawing in Sri Lanka in 2019 before suffering a crushing 3-0 defeat in Australia last January.
The batting unit has developed solidity as a result, beyond just Williamson and the 37-year-old Ross Taylor. Tom Latham has a strong case to open for the World XI versus Mars, as has BJ Watling as this interplanetary side’s wicketkeeper. The 35-year-old, whose 205 at Mount Maunganui in 2019 remains burned on English retinas, will retire at the end of this tour but does not seem the sort to let emotion take over.
Bowling-wise, the attack is shorn of Trent Boult, resting at home before returning for the big one, but it still boasts the guile and experience of Tim Southee, the heft of Neil Wagner and, in Kyle Jamieson, a 6ft 8in monster who bowls attacking full lengths and uses his bouncer as a shock ball. England have faced him once before, a tour match in Whangarei in 2019, and Dom Sibley may recall the crunch of leather on helmet.
While New Zealand have a more immediate target, Joe Root and Chris Silverwood are – to the sighs of many – making no secret of England’s priority this year being the winter Ashes tour. As so while injuries have ruled out Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, they have still initially opted to rest the returnees from the Indian Premier League in order to broaden the experience of their wider group before India arrive for five Tests.
That said, an expected top six of Sibley, Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Joe Root, Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence all played during the winter. It is just that only Root and, to a lesser extent, Sibley feel locked in, while wicketkeeper James Bracey will be in unfamiliar territory slotting in at No 7 on debut. The left-hander, who gets his chance with Jos Buttler rested and Ben Foakes the victim of a dressing-room slip, is a No 3 for Gloucestershire and may have to learn the art of waiting to bat.
Beyond a need for Crawley and Pope to shake off the 3-1 spin cycle in India and turn their talent into consistent runs, England’s chief question appears to be the makeup of the attack. With warm weather forecast in London next week, an initial plan to play four seamers may have to be rethought to accommodate the left-arm spin of Jack Leach unless a batsman is dropped and the tail matches that of a diplodocus.
It’s here where the loss of Stokes – and the decision to afford Chris Woakes and Sam Curran time out of the bubble – will be felt most. Archer’s absence after elbow surgery is a blow, no question, but in Mark Wood and Olly Stone England at least have options for outright pace.
From a distance it appears Ollie Robinson will be the second debutant on show, even if those at Taunton will doubtless argue that Craig Overton has the edge. Unless England plump for four seamers, the plan to grant the 6ft 5in Sussex right-armer an immediate taste of Test cricket will involve eschewing 90mph pace or asking one of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to step aside.
If so – and it’s a big if given the calibre of bowlers we’re talking about here – Anderson’s relative lack of overs this season through injury and poor weather could make him the more vulnerable, despite being one short of equalling Alastair Cook’s England record of 161 caps. Broad has been flying for Nottinghamshire and, besides, would Silverwood dare risk a repeat of last summer’s diary room diatribe?
These are better headaches than those with the bat and with the schedule packed like a sardine tin, rotation is inevitable regardless. It also feeds into the desire of Silverwood and Jon Lewis, England’s bowling coach, to create a stable of quicks who are collaborative in terms of knowledge but competitive in regard to places.
They do so with Australia unashamedly on their minds but, with the best two sides in the world in town this season, they would be wise not to veer into overthink.