England have the nucleus of a pretty good Test side, but the time for excuses has long gone. New Zealand were twice thrashed when they toured South Africa recently, and are much worse at Tests than one-day internationals, suffering from a lack of potency - magnified by the departure of Shane Bond - and from a brittle middle-order. If England are to have any hope of regaining their number two ranking any time soon, they should win this series by at least a 2-0 margin.
In theory, England’s pace attack should prove decisive. Matthew Hoggard and Ryan Sidebottom, in conditions that should be very conducive to their brand of swing, will be eager to attack a line-up in which there are major deficiencies. Their canny swing, subtle variations and consistency will test the techniques of the Kiwi batsmen to the hilt. And, if Steve Harmison can find his groove on pitches that are expected to offer some bounce, New Zealand’s scorecards could resemble those in South Africa, when they failed to pass 200 in four innings, in which case Monty Panesar, who needs a good series, may be marginalised.
With the bat, the controversial selection of Andrew Strauss, who had done nothing whatsoever to merit a recall, means there will be a re-jigging of the batting order. The promising Vaughan-Cook opening pair will be persisted with, and Strauss will bat at three, for the first time in his Test career. He could be a bad series away from being dropped on a more permanent basis although he played reassuringly well in making 104 in the last warm-up game and his technical flaws should not be over-exposed by a fairly toothless attack. It is led by Chris Martin, a worthy and experienced bowler but averaging over 35 if Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are excluded. Daniel Vettori is a brilliant ODI bowler, but is perhaps a little over-rated in Tests, and claimed just three wickets in South Africa.
Ian Bell will, correctly, bat above Paul Collingwood. It is a wise move because, ultimately, Bell should be a better Test batsman than Collingwood, while, as his one-day pyrotechnics showed, Collingwood may be the better man to bat with the tail. Either way, against moderate opposition Bell should be looking to make a hundred – and a big one at that. Kevin Pietersen should enjoy the bowling providing he manages to keep his ego in check, particularly against Vettori.
As so often, however, all eyes will be on England’s number seven. Tim Ambrose will be making his debut in almost as low-key a setting as Test cricket allows. It is almost unanimously agreed that his keeping is a significant improvement upon that of Matt Prior. His batting, previously his weak suit, improved to the point that he averaged 45 in Division One of the championship, as well as 70 in the Friends Provident Trophy, last season. From what I know, Ambrose appears to be the best man for the gloves in the Test side. He has an important role to play as England begin the road to recovery after a dire run of Test form that has seen them win just two of their last eight series.