Match Preview by Neil Robinson 19/05/04
Little more than two weeks after their triumphant return from the Caribbean, Englandís cricketers find themselves assembling for a new and probably tougher challenge as they take on New Zealand in the first of three Tests starting at Lordís on Thursday. A one-day series ruined by rain (three out of seven matches washed out) and overshadowed by the continuing kerfuffle over whether England will or should tour Zimbabwe later this year rather took the gloss off the end of a tour which exceeded most expectations, but England will be looking to get back to business this week and continue their good form from the Caribbean Tests.
The theme of continuity was strong in the squad announced by the selectors this weekend, with no new faces joining the successful tour party. There is another chance for Marcus Trescothick to carry his impressive one-day consistency into the Test arena, while Nasser Hussainís lengthy Test career continues in the same stubborn, unshiftable way as most of his innings. The 3-0 win over West Indies presented the selectors with something of a fait accompli when they got together over the weekend, and this was a source of some vexation to at least one of their number.
Former Aussie Test stumper and current ECB Academy supremo Rod Marsh, is known to be upset that his protege Chris Read was unceremoniously axed from the side for the final Test in favour of Geraint Jones, without the customary selectorial discussion which is supposed to accompany such a radical policy shift. It is thought that Marsh may well be reconsidering his position on the panel, one which must be debatable anyway given the limited amount of international cricket he can view thanks to his taxing Academy duties. Jones was promised a good run in the side, as all debutants should be, which left Marsh and co. no option but to rubber stamp his inclusion at the selection meeting. Team coach Duncan Fletcher, never the biggest fan of Read as a batsman, may well have had that in mind all along.
The only thing which might prevent Englandís top seven looking identical to that which took the field in Antigua is the possibility that a green looking pitch might lead England to omit spinner Ashley Giles and go in with four seamers plus Paul Collingwood at six. This would accord with the traditional view of early season pitches at Lordís; slow, low and seamer friendly, but that is a theory which has come badly unstuck once or twice in recent years. Fine weather and a better than expected pitch helped Sri Lanka pile up 500+ here two years ago , in a game from which England only just managed to escape unscathed. So far this season Lordís has looked far friendlier than usual for batsmen, and the run of hot sunny weather over the past week will not have done anything to change that.
Nonetheless, the possibility of seaming conditions has been uppermost in pre-match discussions this week, not least because of the sudden resurgence of the prodigiously talented James Anderson, whose 6 for 49 against Worcestershire last week was a masterclass in full-length pace and swing. Even Graeme Hick, fresh from mauling the touring Kiwis for an undefeated 204, was made to look distinctly uncomfortable before Anderson dispatched him back to the pavilion. A recall for the young Lancastrian, perhaps in place of the pacey but still rusty Simon Jones, may well be on the cards.
Early sightings of the New Zealanders have been mixed. Poor footwork and technique saw them crumble to a convincing 9 wicket defeat at the hands of Kent in their final warm up match (England discard Robert Key striking a hundred in each innings), which seems to have encouraged the forecasts of a successful Anderson return. Shane Bond has looked as short of match practice as he truly is, while skipper Stephen Fleming has been struggling with a hip / lower abominal injury. Rumours of Flemingís absence from the Lordís XI seem, however, to have been little more than a bit of mischievous stirring. The Kiwi batsmen will need to get their feet moving and their bowlers to find a fuller length if they are to prosper in this series, but with three old county hands like John Bracewell, Fleming and Chris Cairns in their ranks it is unlikely that that message will go unstated. Whatever their technical problems, the Kiwis will be sure to put up more of a fight than the West Indies did in Englandís last Test series. England may well get the upper hand, but this time theyíll have to use it with all the more force to guarantee the knockout.
England Squad for the First Test, Starting at Lordís, Thursday 20th May