England head into tomorrow’s first Test against New Zealand in relaxed spirits. 2022 saw England redefining the boundaries of Test cricket with their ultra-positive approach, Brendan McCullum and Ben Stokes proving to be a match made in heaven. It was as successful as it was scintillating; England arrive in New Zealand having won nine out of their last ten Test matches, including a historic series win in Pakistan. Their positive approach has been rewarded with results, and in Pakistan, they proved they could take their show on the road. It’s a stark contrast to the beleaguered England side that headed to the Caribbean this time last year after a mauling down under. England are all smiles now and brimming with confidence.
England’s approach is all about freedom of expression and positivity, throwing off the shackles and backing each other’s abilities. Their sense of togetherness has been harnessed further in the more relaxed surroundings of New Zealand as their approach off the field is equally unconventional. Gone are the days of endless tour matches; instead, McCullum’s side has spent four days relaxing in Queenstown, the world’s adventure capital, somewhat befitting of this cavalier England team. McCullum is keen for his side to enjoy Test cricket; they may be allowed to indulge in the odd slog on the pitch, but off the field, it’s anything but. In their brief two-day warm-up match, England batted with typical aggression, their star of the winter Harry Brook casually plundering five sixes in one over. But don’t be fooled by McCullum’s deckchair-like demeanour; he’d love nothing more than a victory on his home soil.Embed from Getty Images
The last time England won a series in New Zealand, McCullum was still playing, facing up to two of his premier fast bowlers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. England’s series in New Zealand have often produced drama, and that series in 2008 was no different. Monty Panesar bowled England to victory in the deciding third Test, while a young Tim Southee announced himself on debut with a rapid 77 not out, including nine sixes. Who could forget that sensational Test in Christchurch in 2002? Nathan Astle pulverised England’s bowlers with a spectacular double hundred yet still ended up on the losing side. 2013 saw England hang on for a drawn series thanks to a brilliant rearguard hundred from Matt Prior. While 2018 saw England taste humiliation, blasted out for just 58 on the first morning in Auckland by Southee and Trent Boult.
But New Zealand will be without Boult, who was released from his central contract last year. Despite injuries to Kyle Jamieson and Matt Henry, head coach Gary Speed has resisted the urge to recall Boult, with 29-year-old seamer Blair Tickner poised for a debut. A heavy burden could fall upon Southee and the wholehearted Neil Wagner, with Otago paceman Jacob Duffy also likely to make his debut. Southee will relish the opportunity of derailing England’s positive approach; the skipper already has an impressive 66 wickets under his belt against McCullum’s men. While England’s preparation has involved riding a wave of relaxation, New Zealand’s approach has been buffeted by cyclone Gabrielle. It has been a struggle for their players to get to Mount Maunganui, let alone prepare for a Test match.Embed from Getty Images
New Zealand’s last Test action came late in 2022, drawing a series in Pakistan where bat dominated ball. Openers Devon Conway and Tom Latham filled their boots while Kane Williamson made an excellent unbeaten double hundred in the first Test. The second Test provided some of the thrilling drama England conjured on their own visit. Pakistan holding on to a draw nine wickets down after almost threatening to steal an improbable victory. It was New Zealand’s first Test series since their defeat in England last summer, where the seeds of the McCullum and Stokes era were sown. England have blossomed into the most talked about team in Test cricket since, while New Zealand have largely been confined to playing one-day cricket. It’s a shame to see the Kiwis playing such little Test cricket and a sad indictment of where the game is heading. Tomorrow will represent the first time New Zealand have played on home soil for 77 days.
Unsurprisingly, after being deprived of seeing their players in the flesh for so long, good crowds are expected for both Tests, and hopefully, the weather holds. The day/night aspect creates an intriguing proposition, with its merits in Test cricket still up for debate. England were humbled in their last day/night Test on New Zealand soil, but I can’t see the lights doing much to dim their positive approach. New Zealand pitches often provide some assistance to the seamers early on, and with Anderson and Broad likely lining up in tandem, it will be interesting to see what Stokes does at the toss. Series between the two sides are normally competitive and played in good spirits. With this England side, you know we are guaranteed some entertainment that can awaken even the bleariest of eyes. Can they provide McCullum with a triumphant homecoming?