If England's aspirations of winning next summer's Ashes are to be taken seriously Michael Vaughan's side must start producing a consistent and high quality brand of cricket, and that means walloping New Zealand who, weather permitting, they play this morning in the first of three Tests. It was against the same opposition four years ago that England's credibility and belief began to rise, form that culminated in the 2005 triumph over Australia, and nothing less than a 2-0 series win against the Black Caps is acceptable.
England began their quest by selecting the same side for Lord's as that which won the final two Tests against New Zealand in March, meaning there is no place for Matthew Hoggard. Playing back-to-back series, home and away, against the same team within a three-month period is folly, but the Black Caps offer Vaughan's troops the ideal opportunity to gain momentum and shine. Subsequent series against South Africa and India will provide England with sterner challenges and they need to be approached with confidence high.
Vaughan yesterday described New Zealand as a "workmanlike" side. It is a fair assessment. Daniel Vettori's team are capable, as they showed in Hamilton earlier this year when they defeated England convincingly, but limited. They should be no match for the hosts if they play to their full potential.
Consistency is England's biggest problem. Sporadic moments of excellence surrounded by weeks of indifference can no longer be tolerated. England's top six batsmen should not be immune from the axe just because they are averaging over 40 runs. Despite what they think, averaging 40 is no great deal in the modern game and more is expected from them.
The bowlers cannot keep relying on Ryan Sidebottom. One man can carry a bowling attack only for so long. Stuart Broad is young and finding his way so leeway should be given, but it is not acceptable for James Anderson and Monty Panesar to make only occasional contributions. Selecting Anderson is the right decision, he has two five-wicket hauls here compared to Hoggard's best of 4 for 27. But he and Panesar now share 48 Tests and need to feature more often than they do. The fact that Vaughan wants Andrew Flintoff to return as soon as he is fit should give them the kick up the backside they need.
England's fielding can be equally inconsistent and frustrating. In Hamilton the catching was magnificent. The Test was lost but it is hard to remember a better display. The following Test in Wellington was won despite half a dozen straightforward chances being grassed.
The ability of New Zealand's batsmen to post competitive totals will decide the series. Stephen Fleming, the Black Caps' recently-retired former captain, will be missed and the visitors are hoping that Aaron Redmond, who has made an encouraging start to the tour, will fill the void. The explosive Brendon McCullum will bat at five and somehow he and New Zealand's strong middle order – Jacob Oram at seven, Vettori at eight – need to get 350 on the board.
It will not be easy. New Zealand's batsmen all look vulnerable outside the off-stump and England's slip fielders could be busy. The pitch looks a beauty and Mick Hunt, the groundsman, has left a little more grass on it than usual in the hope that it will possess more pace and bounce than normal. Such conditions will encourage the Black Caps' seam-orientated bowling attack, but England's batsmen are more capable of dealing with these issues than their opponents.
"We weren't at our best in New Zealand but we fought hard and won two Tests," said Vaughan. "The aim here is to produce good consistent cricket and beat New Zealand in convincing fashion. New Zealand are a workmanlike side that are dangerous if you allow them to play their way. We have to make sure that we play the way we can and put them under as much pressure as possible. We need to improve in some areas and if we can do that we will develop a good side going in to some really big series."
Vettori will play at Lord's even though a cut finger caused him to miss New Zealand's last two warm-up games. "I take Vaughan's assessment of us as a compliment," said the New Zealand captain. "For us to succeed at this level we have to be near the top of our game all the time and, with guys that work as hard as ours do, we give ourselves a chance. If we play to our potential we can win the series."
England: M Vaughan (c), A Strauss, A Cook, K Pietersen, I Bell, P Collingwood, T Ambrose, S Broad, R Sidebottom, M Panesar, J Anderson.
New Zealand: (from) D Vettori (c), J How, A Redmond, J Marshall, R Taylor, B McCullum, D Flynn, J Oram, K Mills, T Southee, C Martin, I O'Brien.
Lord's five-day weather forecast
TODAY Max temp: 15c, Cloud, rain
TOMORROW Max temp: 16c, Cloud, rain
SATURDAY Max temp: 18c, Sunny
SUNDAY Max temp: 18c, Sunny
MONDAY Max temp: 16c, CloudyReuse content