Preview: New Zealand Versus England

Reports & previews

Peter May looks ahead to the opening Test between the Black Caps and England.

New Zealand and England effectively begin a six-Test series in Hamilton on Wednesday.

Seddon Park hosts the first of three five-day rubbers on Kiwi soil before an almost immediate transfer of both squads to the northern hemisphere: within six weeks of leaving Napier these sides meet again at Lord's, Old Trafford and Trent Bridge.

England will be targeting victory in both New Zealand and back home: in the recent one-day series the Black Caps have proved themselves good value for last year's World Cup challenge but are hardly recognised as a Test match force.

That reputation has not been helped by the exclusion of Shane Bond due to his ICL involvement, a decision that leaves both sides without their best strike bowler as Andrew Flintoff continues life in rehabilitation.

The hosts will still able to call on at least five bowlers, however: South African-born Grant Elliott is called up for the first time to a 13-man squad that includes two other all-rounders in Jacob Oram and the captain Daniel Vettori as well as four specialist bowlers.

The problem for Vettori will be in the batting.

New Zealand did not get to 200 in four innings in South Africa late last year, and couldn't make 400 in two pressure-less wins over Bangladesh in January.

Jesse Ryder is the highest profile batting casualty on an injury list that also includes Peter Fulton and Michael Mason; Ross Taylor and Jamie How come in with Elliott.

England boast a remarkably familiar look for a team on such a poor run: Geraint Jones is the only Ashes MBE who is fit, available and absent.

Tim Ambrose will earn his first cap behind the stumps and Monty Panesar is given a chance to atone for his poor series in Sri Lanka.

Panesar has a reputation for wanting to learn from his opponents and should do so here: the New Zealand captain's thoughtful and creative instincts are what the Englishman is missing.

Ryan Sidebottom has been declared fit to partner Matthew Hoggard while Steve Harmison is expected to edge out Stuart Broad for the final seamer's place.

At the top of the order Andrew Strauss leapfrogs Owais Shah to the final batting berth thanks to his central contract more than anything else (the decision having effectively been made before his weekend ton in a tour match).

That century was made at number three and the left-hander will likely start there, allowing Michael Vaughan to continue reluctantly with Alastair Cook.

England start as favourites and if that seems generous following the ODI series then the Black Caps are hardly compelling alternatives.

Neither side looks too well equipped to take 20 wickets; nor does either have a good recent record for big scoring with the bat.

All in all not the series Test cricket needs to re-establish its credentials amidst twenty20 mania.

The stakes are much higher for England, however.

Victory here and back home would put the team on an upward curve to face the challenge of South Africa this summer.

Failure to win against a team in transition would lead to calls for an overhaul: how many times can Vaughan and Peter Moores do the same thing for the same result and get away with it?

<b>Key men:</b>

<i>New Zealand:</I> <B>Chris Martin</B> has the job of leading the attack in Bond's absence – and has been vocal in his criticism of England for focusing too much on the ICL paceman and not enough on what else the hosts offer.

<i>England:</I> A key priority is individuals making truly big scores, and the best candidate to do so remains <B>Kevin Pietersen</B>. The right-hander made all the right noises in pledging his allegiance to England over the IPL and can now play a decisive role in an overdue series victory.

<B>Last Five Results:</B>

2004: Third Test: England won by 4 wickets at Trent Bridge, Nottingham.<BR>2004: Second Test: England won by 9 wickets at Headingley, Leeds.<BR>2004: First Test: England won by 7 wickets at Lord's, London.<BR>2002: Third Test: New Zealand won by 78 runs at Eden Park, Auckland.<BR>2002: Second Test: Match Drawn at Basin Reserve, Wellington.

<b>Prediction</b>

England will find it tough to break New Zealand down but have the personnel to win the series. Failure to do so would point to a team in dire need of renewal.

<b>Probable teams:</b>

New Zealand: Matthew Bell, Jamie How, Stephen Fleming, Ross Taylor, Mathew Sinclair, Jacob Oram, Brendon McCullum, Daniel Vettori, Kyle Mills, Iain O'Brien, Chris Martin.

England: Alastair Cook, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Tim Ambrose, Ryan Sidebottom, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Monty Panesar.

Dates:</B> 5-9 March<BR><B>Morning session:</B> 10:30-12:30 local time (21:30-23.30, 4-8 March, GMT)<BR><B>Afternoon session:</B> 13.10-15.10 local time (00:10-02.10 GMT)<BR><B>Evening session:</B> 15.30-17.30 local time (02:30-04.30 GMT)

<B>Match referee:</B> Javagal Srinath<BR><B>Umpires:</B> Daryl Harper and Steve Davis

<B>Peter May</B>

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