After England won both pyjama series 2-1 and lost the only red ball warmup match, we are finally approaching the meat of the tour: the three match Test series which begins in Dunedin on the sixth of March (fifth of March for those in the UK). England will be strong favourites after a first win in India for 28 years and after New Zealand were badly beaten in both Tests in South Africa. But this is not a New Zealand side to be underestimated and they will have Tim Southee and Ross Taylor returning, both of whom were absent in South Africa.
England did not play Jonny Bairstow in the warmup which should end any possibility that he may still compete with Joe Root for the number six spot. As I’ve written before, this is very generous to Root and harsh on Bairstow. England did give Graham Onions an opportunity to press his case for either Stuart Broad’s or Graeme Swann’s spot as the fourth bowler, but he took only one wicket for 213 runs in the match. The effect of this is that unless Broad suffers a recurrence of his heel injury ahead of the fourth Test, England’s XI for the first Test at least is all but set in stone. I suspect it will take an injury or a very poor performance for there to be any changes for the other two matches as well.
New Zealand added Neil Wagner to their squad for the first Test after he impressed against England in the warmup. With Southee, Trent Boult and Doug Bracewell all available for the first Test I don’t see any way for Wagner to be one of the three main seamers, but New Zealand’s only spin option in the squad is Bruce Martin. Martin is uncapped and has a first class average over 35 and I don’t think it would be a terrible idea for New Zealand to play Wagner instead in conditions that will likely help the seamers. It’s a tough call and unfortunately for New Zealand a tough call because neither player has done much to demand selection. I suspect it will be a decision made once they have had a look at the pitch, but right now I’d lean toward Wagner.
Even with the return of Taylor to the New Zealand side, I am not expecting much from the New Zealand batsmen. They were pretty thoroughly demolished in South Africa and even having returned home I don’t think they will find life against Anderson and company much easier. I’d be surprised if we saw any more double figure scores, but I think they will really struggle to put England under pressure. A lot will depend on New Zealand’s new opening pair of (presumably) Hamish Rutherford and Peter Fulton. New Zealand’s middle order is fragile and exposing them to the new ball is a recipe for disaster. Even if the top two can’t put a lot of runs on the board, they need to consistently form long partnerships to make sure that the Kiwi middle order do not face the teeth of the English bowling. In other words, they need to do the job of an opening pair.
New Zealand’s real strength, however, and where they might really cause England problems is their bowling. Southee was in the form of his life before missing the South Africa series with injury, but on his return to the Plunket Shield he promptly took 9-149 in a match. Boult and Bracewell are also both quite dangerous, though they have probably not shown it as often as New Zealand would like. Especially in their home conditions England can expect them to be a handful. England’s batsmen are quite good and won’t be in terribly unfamiliar conditions, but I still expect they will have a few low scores.
The player to watch may be Nick Compton; he has not yet solidified his place and this will be a very different ask than opening in India was. England still have the option of opening with Root and Compton probably needs to prove his worth here to make sure that Andy Flower doesn’t start thinking along those lines. Root himself need to show that his efforts in Nagpur were no fluke, however. As mature as he has looked it is easy to forget that he only has one Test to his name, but he does. He could yet find himself under pressure as well.
England are favourites, but if they did not already know that this would not be a walkover then their defeat in the warmup will have made that point quite clear. I expect New Zealand will have a few good performances in the series and will put England under pressure at times. The problem the Kiwis have is that when they do perform well they really struggle to back those performances up and consistently perform to the standard of which they are capable. England are a good enough side that if New Zealand continue to be so hit-or-miss they will struggle most of the series. I expect them to do enough to avoid the whitewash and with the weather also an issue I think the series will finish 2-0 to England, though 2-1 is a possibility. New Zealand might be able to get a draw or more, but only if they perform consistently well and England consistently or frequently fail to play to their standard.