England will resist the temptation to change their opening partnership for tonight's must-win one-dayer against New Zealand here. There was much for England to take out of their comfortable victory in Auckland last week, a win that reduced the hosts' lead to 2-1 in the five-game series, but the combination of Phil Mustard and Alastair Cook has yet truly to come off. In eight starts the pair have not posted a 50 partnership and their average stand is just 21.
Of the two Mustard has been the weaker link, averaging 18.5 in eight innings at the top of the order. This is not surprising, because it is the role of the dashing opener to take risks and get after the bowlers while the fielding restrictions are in place. Cook is there for England's batsmen to play around. It is his job to be batting still after 30 overs.
"We will not be changing the opening pair," said Paul Collingwood, the one-day captain, defiantly after a lengthy training session in the art deco capital of the world. "The colonel [Mustard] is one innings away from cracking it. He has shown he has the potential to be there and we know Cooky can do it. He has shown that in his England career already. He is our rock at the top of the order.
"The colonel hasn't yet scored the big one for us. He is an aggressive player and he is going to get low scores along the way, but he just needs that one big score to get going. You have to give players like him a good run. They are exciting and, when they come off, they win games for you. When he scores runs everyone says how good he is for the future, but when he doesn't come off you quickly question players like him and that is wrong. You have to give them a good chance and he certainly has the potential to do it at this level."
Mustard's glovework, bar a dropped catch in Hamilton, has been excellent. He is a natural wicketkeeper and he has an excellent chance of making his Test debut in a couple of weeks. The 25-year-old's self-effacement and easy-going nature make him a popular member of the squad, and all he needs is a couple of good scores to establish himself as England's keeper.
England are unlikely to change the side that won in Auckland. The McLean Park pitch is reported to be hard and true, offering fast bowlers and high-quality batsmen an equal chance. The bowling of Dimitri Mascarenhas copped a bit of a hiding on Friday, but his big hitting will keep him his place. There is a case for Graeme Swann playing ahead of Luke Wright, to give England's bowling variety, but short boundaries square of the wicket mean that a top edge will go sailing into the stands for six.
New Zealand will make at least one change following Paul Hitchcock's removal from the squad. The medium-pacer is likely to be replaced by Iain O'Brien, a fast bowler who is expected to play against England in the three Test series that follows the one-dayers.
England (probable): P D Collingwood (capt), P Mustard (wkt), A N Cook, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, O A Shah, L J Wright, A D Mascarenhas, S C J Broad, R J Sidebottom, J M Anderson.
New Zealand (probable): D L Vettori (capt), J D Ryder, B B McCullum (wkt), J M How, R L Taylor, S B Styris, P G Fulton, J D P Oram, K D Mills, I E O'Brien, C S Martin.
* Andrew Flintoff returns to action today following a four-month layoff with a chronic ankle injury. Flintoff is expected to play in the three one-day games for the England Lions who are touring India, but will figure solely as a batsman. A true test of the all-rounder's fitness will come next month, on Lancashire's pre-season tour of Abu Dhabi, when he will bowl for the first time since a fourth operation on his left ankle last September.
* England women retained the Ashes with a six-wicket win over Australia in the four-day Test in Bowral. Australia declared on 231 for 9 shortly before lunch in an attempt to force victory. But, set 142 in the final session to win, England reached their target largely thanks to Claire Taylor's unbeaten 64.
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