The 2013 Test summer begins this Thursday when England play the first of two Tests against the visiting Kiwis. England are looking to show put their poor performance in New Zealand behind them and go into the Ashes on a high. It should be a good series, however, New Zealand showed in that series two months ago that they are a good team and if they can continue to perform consistently they will remain tough to beat.
There were few surprises in the twelve man squad England named for the first Test; Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan are both back from injury and they are replacing Monty Panesar and Chris Woakes. Other than that, England are unchanged from the team that played in Auckland at the end of March. The only question for Thursday is whether Bresnan or Steven Finn will play, but Finn is the likely candidate. He didn’t overwhelm anyone in New Zealand, but he did manage a six-wicket haul in the final Test and with Bresnan having only just returned from his elbow surgery I would be surprised if England decided to leave Finn out. The only reason why they might is if they wanted to get a look at Bresnan ahead of the Ashes, but I expect they would wait until the second Test to do any tinkering and even then only if England won at Lord’s. This another case where a third Test would do very nicely, but the ECB have only seen fit to schedule two. If Bresnan does not play, then hopefully England will send him up to Edgbaston to take part in Yorkshire’s Championship match there as he really needs to play one way or another.
The lack of any spare batsman in the squad confirmed that England would be playing both Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow in the middle order. They both made good scores for the Lions against New Zealand and Root has had an incredible start to the domestic season, so it’s a reasonable choice though it does seem like one which was made some time ago and is more fortunate than clever. Bairstow certainly and to a lesser extent Root will be under a bit of pressure during the series as one of them will miss out when Kevin Pietersen returns from injury. This has been no bad thing for Root in the past, but England will hope that it does not affect Bairstow as they do badly need the middle order to perform better than they did in New Zealand.
New Zealand don’t have very many selection questions either. There is certainly no pressing need to change the batting after the job they did against England in New Zealand. The bowlers were also generally successful and in fact Daniel Vettori has been left out of the squad after the job Bruce Martin did in the three Tests in March. Neil Wagner also had an excellent series, but his place in the XI is not quite so secure. Wagner was only in the side after Doug Bracewell injured his foot and although he kept his place throughout that series, it isn’t clear whether or not Bracewell will return to the side now. Wagner had the better figures of the two when both played at Derbyshire, but that was not against a strong batting lineup and Bracewell was selected for the match against the Lions as part of what looked like a full-strength New Zealand side. I don’t know as much about the New Zealand selectors, but I suspect it will be Bracewell for the first Test.
That New Zealand have the dilemma of Wagner v Bracewell is something of a luxury as both will be part of an attack that can certainly make life difficult for the England batsmen. But even without Pietersen, I think England will put on a better batting display than they did during most of the New Zealand series. All of the top order have been it at least decent if not very good form early in the season and all have had a decent amount of time in the middle. Because of the early season conditions favouring the bowlers I don’t expect too many really big team scores, but they should be less reliant on Alastair Cook this time and be better able to put up competitive totals.
England will also hope that their batsmen will not need to score as many runs this time. England’s seam attack did not seem to really ‘click’ in New Zealand, though part of that was that they didn’t get a lot of help from the pitch or conditions, and they need to do better in this series. England are at least back up to full strength and like New Zealand have the luxury of leaving out a very good bowler. Stuart Broad and James Anderson both had successful runs for their respective county sides as well, though Finn was less impressive. The New Zealand batsmen have been a bit hit-or-miss in the tour matches as well. That does not necessarily mean a lot, but some of them have had very little time in the middle now and may be vulnerable in the first Test. Getting both of the openers cheaply will be important for England; if they can do that they should be able to bowl New Zealand out cheaply at least in the first Test.
It is very unfortunate that the series is only two Tests; it will make it very hard to get much out of it and one bad innings early on could be the difference. It will also make it harder for England to really assess the players ahead of the Ashes later this summer. Ultimately if England play as well as we know they can, they should prevail. But that was also true in New Zealand and England were quite fortunate to escape with a share of that trophy. The series is short enough that there is a decent chance for New Zealand to get at least a draw, if not an unlikely win, but I think England probably will win the series as long as the weather does not interfere too much. Certainly if they don’t it will sound alarm bells ahead of the Ashes. It should be a fairly hard-fought series and New Zealand should have at least periods where they are on top, but I think England will win 1-0.