New Zealand and England have developed quite a bit of rivalry in the last four months, for obvious reasons. The conclusion of the 2019 World Cup is well documented and the memories were still fresh in every Kiwi player’s mind when the Eoin Morgan-led side reopened the wounds by once again defeating them in the Super Over to win the five-match T20I series earlier this month.
The two teams will now take this rivalry into the Test arena when they meet for the first encounter of the two-match series at the Bay Oval in Tauranga on Thursday (November 21).
On paper, there again appears to be little to separate the teams, with New Zealand second in the Test rankings and England third. But England captain Joe Root is painfully aware that his team underperformed when they lost a two-Test series in New Zealand last year after underestimating the Black Caps’ bowlers on their home turf. They were bundled out for just 58 in the first innings of the first Test and ended up losing the series 0-1.
Root has made it very clear that his team would be taking a more measured approach this time, with batsmen placing an emphasis on protecting their wickets. The series will not count towards the World Test Championship, giving new England head coach Chris Silverwood room to experiment in his first Test series in charge.
“We have to be prepared to play some attritional cricket at times. We have to try to bat longer... it would be nice to get used to batting for 120 overs more regularly, especially in the first innings,” said Root.
Root, who himself has underperformed in red-ball cricket in 2019, will be slightly worried about England’s batting department. The 28-year-old has scored 535 runs in 18 innings at an average of 29.72 - his lowest ever since he made his Test debut in 2012. Root didn’t have a great Ashes in which he scored four fifties but not once could convert it into a century. To make it worse, Root averages only 25.56 in the five Tests that he has played in New Zealand. Root doesn’t have great numbers against Tim Southee and Trent Boult and will look to turn things around, especially now that he will be going back to his favourite No. 4 spot.
England will rely a lot on Rory Burns and Ben Stokes as the two had a pretty good Ashes series. Burns scored 390 runs in five games at 39, while Stokes managed 441 runs which included two centuries and as many fifties. Also, THAT knock at Leeds! Stokes has been the cynosure of English cricket this year and will be itching to perform well in the country of his birth. The two however didn’t have great outings in the two practice matches but will surely pull up their socks once the real action begins.
The biggest concern for the English team management will be that not a single batsman apart from these two averages over 30 this year. Jos Buttler has operated at an average of 26.56 in 2019, while Joe Denly and Jonny Bairstow too have struggled to get going. Denly, who missed out on the T20I series because of an injured ankle, took part in the second warm-up match and scored 68 runs.
England are expected to hand opening batsman Dom Sibley his debut, partnering Burns, with Root moving down to fourth in the order. Sibley hit a century in the first warm-up encounter, along with another newbie Zak Crawley, and will most probably open with his former Surrey teammate Burns. Sibley, who left Surrey to join Warwickshire two years ago, forced his way into the England squad after passing 1,000 runs in the County Championship last season and will look to cement his place as an opener, something that many have tried but failed.
The visiting side will once again be without their leading Test wicket-taker James Anderson but they still have Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran, and Jofra Archer. There have been very few players who have been the talk of the town even before their debut. But Archer despite all the spotlight on him, has backed it up with numbers. He was at his best in the Ashes series where he returned 22 wickets, striking every 42.5 balls. He was brilliant in the tour games as he made the batsmen hop and duck, and picked up seven wickets in total in three innings.
A lot will also depend on the experienced and ‘Broad’ shoulders of Stuart who has claimed 62 wickets against New Zealand and is only two scalps behind Sir Ian Botham to become country’s leading wicket-taker against the Black Caps. Apart from them, England always have Stokes who can change the complexion of the match even with the ball in hand. Meanwhile, left-arm orthodox Jack Leach and legspinner Matthew Parkinson will provide that much-needed variety.
Meanwhile, New Zealand will be bolstered by the return of skipper Kane Williamson, who sat out the T20I series because of a nagging hip injury. The 29-year-old is New Zealand’s second highest run-getter in this format since the start of 2018. The right-hander has amassed 949 runs in 11 Tests at 63.26. Apart from Williamson, Tom Latham (1052 runs) and Henry Nicholls (901 runs) are the other two Kiwi batsmen who average over 63 in this same time frame. The trio will once again be expected to deliver big and make life difficult for Archer and Co.
While opener Jeet Raval and Ross Taylor haven’t been at their best this year, BJ Watling and Colin de Grandhomme have chipped in whenever the team has needed them to. De Grandhomme has been New Zealand’s impact player in the last two years. The all-rounder has operated with a strike rate of 84.5 since 2018 - highest by any Test batsman with minimum 300 runs in this time period.
On the bowling front, the home side has a solid pace attack that comprise of Boult, Southee, Matt Henry, Neil Wagner, and Lockie Ferguson who’s yet to make his Test debut. Both Southee and Boult average less than 23 in Test cricket since 2018, while Wagner is someone who you would call a true workhorse. The left-arm paceman is one of those who can turn the match around in one spell just by bowling those heavy balls.
While spinners Mitchell Santner and Todd Astle are always around, New Zealand might also unleash Ferguson who has made quite a name for himself in white-ball cricket. The right-arm fast bowler can generate some serious pace and has picked up over 150 wickets in first-class cricket. While England have Archer, New Zealand head coach Gary Stead has hinted that they might include Ferguson in the playing XI to “fight fire with fire”.
“Jofra Archer will be a threat. He is a point of difference. But he can only bowl from one end. And we’ve someone in our squad who bowls at a similar type of speed in Lockie Ferguson. It’s really exciting to be able to fight fire with fire in some ways. And it’s exciting that there’s a potential debut for him at some stage as well. I think it’s really good in terms of the balance of the squad that we have five pace bowlers who all offer us slightly different things.”
Stead however turned down the option of going with an all-pace attack because the surface at the Bay Oval has the reputation of disintegrating rapidly. “I think that’s unlikely because the weather forecast looks so good over the next week. Also, this is generally a pitch that’s worn pretty quickly and perhaps provides the footmarks that open up a wee bit more.”
The head-to-head record is stacked firmly in favour of the visitors. England have won 48 of the 103 Tests played between these two countries, with New Zealand managing only 10 wins. 45 encounters have ended in a draw. The last five Tests have seen England and New Zealand winning two games apiece while one Test ended in a draw.
The Bay Oval will be hosting its first Test and both teams will be eager to draw first blood and take a lead in the two-match series.
New Zealand XI: Tom Latham, Jeet Raval, Kane Williamson (c), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wk), Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult
England XI: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (wk), Sam Curran, Jofra Archer, Jack Leach, Stuart Broad