Andy Flower: England must break bad habit and make fast start against New Zealand
England coach knows three-Test series leaves little room for tourists' usual poor opener
The last time England won the opening Test of an away series against decent opposition Tony Blair was Prime Minister and Hilary Mantel an unknown novelist. This supposes two things in recalling the victory against South Africa in Port Elizabeth in 2004: that Bangladesh, who were defeated in both Tests in 2010, did not come into the realms of decent and that New Zealand, the opponents in the opening match of three starting on Wednesday, do.
Given that an oddly titled and randomly selected New Zealand XI completed an improbable victory against the tourists on Saturday, it would obviously be a mistake to underestimate the threat posed by their senior team. Results might have been hard to come by lately but England are now fully aware that being overwhelming favourites is one matter and proving it quite another.
Andy Flower, their coach, who has returned to guide events after stepping down from limited-overs duties, said yesterday of England's continuing propensity to hit the ground limping: "It's very important. I remember that when I first got involved with the England side that was an identifiable area of weakness and we consciously did something about it. And we don't want to regress in any way.
"That is an area we need to focus on. We want to start well, we want to kick the opposition over, and if this game sharpens us up so that we can do that in Dunedin then it's been an excellent week for us."
Flower has stewarded England through seven Test series away from home since assuming control, initially on a temporary basis, in 2009. The only opening match they have won was against Bangladesh, all of whose results before and since suggest that anything else would have been unforgivable.
England have drawn two of the rest, one against Australia in a series they went on to win, the other against South Africa in a series they also eventually drew. Of the four first Test losses, they lost two of the series and most recently, in Sri Lanka and India, drew and won, which at least demonstrates a capacity to respond.
The point, as Flower knows, is that it is damnably difficult to pull back in a short series. That is what made England's triumph in India last year after losing the first of four ultimately so impressive, but they could have avoided so much angst and agitation.
Until they conclusively display otherwise it is still legitimate to worry that England have an eye only for the Ashes. There are two series against Australia later this year, home and away, and in thinking of those, as they are bound to do, the possibility exists that they may disregard New Zealand, adjudging them easy pickings.
Flower was having none of it, as he made abundantly clear when he said: "I wouldn't say everything is geared to those two Ashes series at the end of the year.
"We're all well aware of the importance of the Ashes to the English cricketing public and we always respect the tradition of the rivalry between the two countries. As in most things in life, we try to get the balance right between planning for an icon series like that, I suppose, but also giving the right respect and value to a series like this, which we must do and we do."
Time will tell. If nothing else, what will most persuasively concentrate the minds of the players in this series is the prospect of being picked against Australia. Doing well now against supposedly weaker opposition would still make them difficult to overlook when the Aussies come to town.
The team for the match at the University Ground is by now cemented in Flower's mind, as it probably was before the warm-up match in Queenstown, which the tourists contrived to lose by three wickets. This means that Nick Compton will continue in the role as Alastair Cook's opening partner that he performed with such diligence in India.
Flower was as laudatory of Compton as he was cautious to praise Joe Root, potential replacement and flavour of the month. It was a clear indication that he is not yet ready to jump on, let alone to drive, the Root bandwagon that has been careering wildly this past fortnight.
"I thought Compton did a really good job in India in some tough conditions, opening against spin on some surfaces that were conducive to spin bowling and dealing with the whole India versus England thing," said Flower. "In his first series I thought he did really well, put on some good partnerships with Cook and saw off the threat of the new ball quite consistently. He looks like a very organised cricketer who knows his own game."
And of Root (left), whom it has been possible to view lately as the reincarnation of Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton combined, Flower said: "To be quite frank, Joe has had a lovely start to his international career but it's only just a start. He has played one Test match and a handful of limited-overs games; he's handled it really well but I think everyone should just calm down a bit about his prospects. Joe himself doesn't know how his career is going to pan out." Root will play, but at No 6 and he is still on probation.
If there was a door open for a third seamer to accompany Jimmy Anderson and Steve Finn, then Graham Onions managed to slam it in his own face. His struggles with his run-up led to all manner of difficulties with his length and he was carved at five an over in both innings by the New Zealand XI.
It was a pity to see such a bowler, who has been so relentlessly accurate in the past, reduced to such innocuousness. Flower suggested that it was a long time since Onions had bowled in a competitive match and that a little patience was necessary. But his lack of match bowling was known before he was selected for the tour.
On the evidence of the performance last week, Onions would be impossible to pick for this series and the way seems open for the recall of Stuart Broad, who grew stronger as the match progressed without ever being wholly convincing.
Broad's chronically tender heel appears to have stood up to the rigours of more than 40 overs in Queenstown but now it has a sterner examination in the Test arena. It remains cause for concern.
As, too, does Graeme Swann's elbow, which Flower said had good days and bad days. The good need to outlast the bad tenfold this year and Swann was perpetually on and off the pitch on Saturday.
The tourists know well what they have to do in Dunedin. If they are kept waiting again, say until Mantel's third book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy is published, England could well be bringing up the bodies.
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