There appears to be a fresh feel about the England cricket team right now following the appointment of new Director of Cricket, Andrew Strauss. 2015 has thus far not been kind to England after a terrible World Cup and an alarmingly below-par tour of the West Indies, so under new management there are calls for a much needed revival.
The pressure is still on this young side to turn England’s fortunes around quickly, especially in a summer where New Zealand and Australia are touring. The recent sacking of Peter Moores leaves England still ‘Head Coach-less’ just days before the opening test against New Zealand on Thursday. A permanent successor is not expected to be announced until the conclusion of the series and so Paul Farbrace, former assistant coach under Moores, will be in charge on a temporary basis until then: a move that has left many questioning the ECB’s seemingly blasé approach to what is still a hugely important three-match series.
Strauss and the England selectors named their 12-man squad for the opening test last Thursday, with Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth and Durham’s Mark Wood the notable inclusions. Lyth looks certain to make his test début and open the batting alongside captain, Alastair Cook, whilst for Wood, it seems he faces a shoot-out with Ben Stokes for the fourth seamer’s spot – one he is likely to lose. Stokes had impressed with the ball against the West Indies but was forced to miss the final test through injury. Following recovery in time for this series, it is perhaps understandable that he looks in pole position to reclaim his place ahead of the uncapped Wood.
After an encouraging tour of the West Indies where he was the series’ leading wicket-taker, James Anderson looks back to something near his fighting-best: a deafening reminder to New Zealand and Australia if they needed it; that he is far from finished in the Test arena. Stuart Broad has showed promising signs in the lead up, as has Chris Jordan, but the entire attack will have to be at their best to overcome a hugely impressive and ever-improving New Zealand top order. Added to this, a bowling unit that is unquestionably one of the best around and England would be foolish to expect another home walkover against the Kiwis.
This is perhaps the best New Zealand test side to have ever toured the United Kingdom and there can be no question that ending the sixteen year wait for a series victory over England is number one priority for Brendon McCullum and his side. For England, their near-perfect home record against New Zealand has never before been under such threat and having lost third place in the ICC Test Rankings to them earlier this year, this clash provides added incentive to begin hauling back their lost reputation as one of the world’s top three.
The spotlight will once again be on captain Alastair Cook this summer. Despite ending his two year wait for a twenty-sixth test century in Barbados last month, Cook still has a lot more run-getting to do before he can fully shrug off his cynics. The summer will also be a huge test of his captaincy credentials – it has not been an easy ride for Cook ever since England’s 5-0 humiliation in Australia sixteen months ago. However, Andrew Strauss has reiterated that Cook is definitely the right man to move things forward.
Alongside Cook, Adam Lyth looks nailed on to be England’s ninth different Test opening batsmen in three years. Lyth, who travelled with the squad to the Caribbean last month but did not feature, has been a regular run-getter for the Lions of late and it appears his contributions have finally earned him a full call-up. Facing the likes of Tim Southee and Trent Boult first up is no easy introduction into Test cricket, but if he copes, England may finally have found a settled opener for years to come.
Joe Root will presumably play a huge role in this summer’s proceedings himself. The newly appointed vice-captain is in the form of his life and looks to have made the number four spot his own, yet England’s reliance on Root this year has been a huge cause for concern. New Zealand will build plans to deal with the Yorkshireman and they have the quality to deliver on those, so while a summer dominated by more Joe Root runs is by no means out of the question, contributions will have to come from all of the batsmen if England are to be competitive.
A key battle in the upcoming series looks set to take place between New Zealand’s new-ball bowlers and England’s opening bats. Having taken a combined 37 wickets at the Cricket World Cup, Trent Boult and Tim Southee have started 2015 in devastating style and will undoubtedly be eyeing up an out-of-form Alastair Cook and the uncapped Adam Lyth as potential weak points in England’s top order. Failure to close out Boult’s and Southee’s early spells will certainly leave England in big trouble.
There is no question that this series will be a huge test for both sides, but especially England. Pressure may have been artificially lifted following comments by Andrew Strauss last week and they enter a home series widely considered as underdogs for the first time in a long while, but there is no denying that England fans are expecting a reaction to the year’s earlier failings. Improved performances alone will not suffice: demand is that Alastair Cook’s men must win this summer and that starts against New Zealand.