And now for the Tests: Six questions about England's series in New Zealand


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The Independent Online

As one tour ends another begins. England put the limited-overs leg of their sojourn in New Zealand behind them yesterday by flying from end of the country to the other.

They left Auckland, where they completed a resounding victory in the one-day series on Saturday, for Queenstown almost 1,000 miles away on South Island, where they will play a four-day match this week in preparation for the Test series.

The tourists will be in good heart after resolving the third one-dayer in their favour by five wickets with 75 balls in hand. If it augurs well for their limited-overs prospects in the near future there is no doubt that they are now about to play the form of the game with which they are most comfortable and which they treat with the most respect.

Q: Should England win the Test series?

A: It would be astonishing if England were to lose any of the three Test matches. It would be a minor surprise if they fail to win them all and it will be something to write home about when they lose a session.

The gap in class, talent and application was painfully clear as the one-day series went on. The last of those should trouble New Zealand above all, since the only way they can compensate for deficiencies in skill is to play and bowl each ball with courage and diligence.

England's epic triumph in India late last year has restored their self-esteem and self-belief under their new captain, Alastair Cook. The memories of last summer when they were outplayed by South Africa (simply a better team) amid a state of chaos created by the Kevin Pietersen saga appear to be just that now: memories.

Of course, England are making all the right noises and there is sufficient precedent for wariness. On both their most recent tours, in 2002 and 2008, the Kiwis snatched an improbable Test win.

Under the returning Andy Flower, however, England leave nothing to chance and certainly take nothing for granted. They will view this series and the one of two matches that follows it in England as stand-alone events – but they are also unquestionably opportunities to hone match hardness and possibly a preferred XI for the Ashes series which follows.

Q: How have New Zealand become so poor?

A: Towards the end of 2011, New Zealand recorded one of their greatest Test wins. They defeated Australia by seven runs in a low-scoring match in Hobart which was dominated by seam bowling.

Then, in Sri Lanka last November, they unexpectedly levelled the series, largely thanks to their captain, Ross Taylor, who made 142 and 74. But those results have been beacons in a storm. Of their last 20 Tests, New Zealand have won only four, the other two victories coming against Zimbabwe.

They have no strength in depth and the problems with their top-order batting, especially their opening pair, have been enduring. Matters reached a nadir on their recent tour of South Africa when they were bowled out for 45.

For years, they have tended to concentrate on limited-overs cricket as their best chance of global success, but that seems to have eroded the longer game at all levels. There are deep concerns about the coaching of elite players.

Disruption in the ranks has compounded their fallibility. Taylor, by some distance their best batsman, was clumsily relieved of the captaincy and, although there has been a rapprochement, it will be distinctly difficult for him and the coach, Mike Hesson, to regain an effective working relationship. All the public sympathy is with Taylor.

For the first Test, New Zealand have recalled Peter Fulton, otherwise known as Two-Metre Peter, after three years. In his first incarnation of 10 Tests, Fulton averaged 20 – long, poor chap, in everything but the duration of his innings.

New Zealand are not complete duffers. In the Australian Dean Brownlie, who scored a hundred in South Africa, Taylor and Kane Williamson they have a likely trio. They will continue to miss the injured veteran spinner Dan Vettori but in Doug Bracewell and Tim Southee they have genuinely capable seam bowlers. Still, they have a revitalised England batting line-up to contend with.

Q: Is England's recent policy of having Test and one-day coaches working?

A: Too early to tell. But two things are certain. Preparations for their limited-overs cricket will be much more meticulous in future, with Ashley Giles focusing entirely on that form of the game in his coaching, if not his selecting role.

The second thing is that Andy Flower, whose official title is team director, should now operate at the peak of his powers permanently. There have been times in the last year when he has looked drained, partly because he was expected to prepare for too many matches across the board, partly because of extraneous affairs connected with Pietersen.

It is clear that Giles and Flower like and respect each other, which is a sound basis for success. It is possible that difficulties may arise if their approaches to training, preparation and relationships with the players vary wildly and that players begin to notice the difference and respond accordingly. For now, there is every reason to suppose that Flower will be refreshed and revitalised. The win in India, coming back from a grotesque defeat in the opening match, was perhaps more crucial than anybody knows in his desire to continue in the job.

Another heavy defeat and questions would have been asked. Instead Flower helped to mastermind two great Test wins. For all manner of reasons he should be more relaxed, less stressed in future without losing his devotion to detail and good practice.

Q: Is the Pietersen Affair done?

A: Yes it is, because everybody says it is. Indeed, there is the faint suspicion that anybody who raises the subject now is guilty of a form of insurrection.

The whole episode, which brought English cricket to its knees, has been swept under the carpet and on some days it is possible to gain the impression that the cricket authorities blame the press for making up the whole affair.

Pietersen is on his best behaviour and in India seemed as content as he has for some time. Yet the issues which led to the schism have not been fully dealt with, so either all parties have decided to forget them or Pietersen has decided to lump it after all.

Part of England's reasoning for dealing so firmly with Pietersen last summer – he was dropped for the last Test against South Africa, lest it be forgotten – was that they refuse to treat any player as a special case. But he is a special case, of course.

Pietersen will not do any press briefings on this tour unless he performs well in a particular match. If he can hardly be blamed for having had enough of the press – some pretty beastly pieces have been written about him – this was a man who once courted publicity because he recognised its value.

With Pietersen, it is impossible to be sure. Something may happen to reignite past grievances if he feels he is not being well enough looked after. But it is unlikely. His colleagues have perhaps come to accept that they were not entirely blameless in the affair.

The likelihood is that Pietersen will carry on quietly while batting thunderously until the World Cup in 2015 when, at the age of nearly 35, he might announce his retirement from international cricket. Until then, all being well, it will be an enjoyable ride.

Q: How good is England's bowling attack?

A: With Steve Finn now approaching the peak of his powers, it has the potential to be as incisive as the attack that undermined Australia two winters ago. Finn is not only bowling like the wind but has rediscovered a rhythm which makes every ball a singular proposition.

He has shortened his run-up and if anything seems faster. It has taken two years for the bowling coach, David Saker, to persuade him of the merit of cutting his approach by six strides.

The curtailment may or may not also help him to stop knocking the bails off the stumps with his right knee. This annoying peculiarity has made him one of the few players to provoke a change in the laws of the game.

From next October a bowler who dislodges the bails as he delivers, whether in Finn's idiosyncratic fashion or with his trailing hand, which has happened intermittently for as long as the game has been played, will be guilty of a no-ball. It is a seminal change and it is possible that it will come into force before then if, for instance, England and Australia agree it should be part of the Test series this summer. Henceforth, it will be known as Finn's Law – and with any luck it may finally force him to stop it.

But he and Jimmy Anderson look formidable. If – and it seems a substantial "if" at present – Stuart Broad can recapture former glories, it will be an attack to give any Antipodean anywhere a problem.

Q: Who will open England's batting?

A: This is a teaser and no mistake. Nick Compton acquitted himself admirably in India, playing an attritional role with boundless determination. But despite five times scoring 29 or more, his highest score was 57.

One school of thought is that Joe Root, who had an excellent debut at six in the third Test in Nagpur and has continued to impress since, is obviously going to be England's opener one day, so why not now? It would be hard on Compton but England have to look beyond this series and a gruelling, intense Ashes double-header lies ahead, their main event of 2013.

Jonny Bairstow has been desperately unfortunate to be overlooked so frequently since his intelligent batting at Lord's against South Africa. Root's elevation would see him restored.

On balance Compton deserves another go to open the batting with Cook but we should learn more about official thinking this week when the side to play in the warm-up game takes the field.