England need focus as Kiwis grapple with Ross Taylor row

Ashes must be forgotten in order to capitalise on NZ captaincy saga

Queenstown

In Ross Taylor's first Test innings against England he made 120 and was dismissed by Kevin Pietersen. That is not, of course, the only improbable link between these two outstanding cricketers: both, in different ways, have managed to bring their national team to its knees.

The Pietersen imbroglio seems to be behind England now, initially treated in a series of autumnal home-counties chit-chats and laid to waste in the Wankhede Stadium when both man and colleagues must have realised how they needed each other. Whether the returning Taylor can reach a similar dressing-room rapprochement with his team-mates and management in the next month may determine whether New Zealand compete with any decency in the Test series which begins in Dunedin on Tuesday night (UK time).

The unexpected victory of a New Zealand XI in the tour match against England yesterday was heartening for the entire country. But it was not a Test match, and if it has not stiffened the tourists' resolve, it ought to have done. On the other hand, it might be the fillip that the longer game in this country needs. You never know.

Taylor's dispute with his employers at New Zealand Cricket is being judged by cricket followers as symptomatic of a sport in turmoil and a team in perpetual struggle. In some ways, it has been seen as the nadir. The Kiwi cause is additionally under-mined by a chronic injury to their most experienced player, Daniel Vettori, and the continuing voluntary absence of the volatile and mercurially gifted batsman Jesse Ryder.

Taylor fell out with New Zealand Cricket when he was unceremoniously dumped from the captaincy. His removal was handled clumsily at best, for which the New Zealand board publicly apologised.

At the heart of the issue is Taylor's relationship with the team coach, Mike Hesson. Taylor is by a country mile his nation's leading batsman, and if there was general surprise when he was elevated to the captaincy, that is frequently what happens to a side's best player.

He was hardly given much time at the head of a weak team (13 Tests, of which four were won, including one against Australia) but it was the manner of his departure that rankled. Taylor was told on the eve of a series in Sri Lanka last year.

He was then asked to stay on as Test captain while shedding the limited-overs roles, but declined. Subsequently, he missed the tour of South Africa, where the Kiwis were humiliated in the Test series – bowled out for 45 in the first innings of the First Test – but somehow recovered under Brendon McCullum to win the one-dayers.

There is no doubt where public sympathy lies. Taylor returned to the side for the limited-overs matches against England and was accorded a standing ovation every time he walked to the crease. When he recovered some form at last by making a hundred in the second ODI in Napier, the non-existent roof almost came off the stadium.

Taylor describes as "a work in progress" his current relationship with Hesson, who has the backing of the board. When they appointed him last July, it is generally presumed that they were extremely keen to have a New Zealander in the role, even one who had not played first-class cricket.

The appointment of the former Australia coach John Buchanan as the country's director of cricket has been divisive. Buchanan, who recommended Taylor's continuation as captain, has admitted to a frosty relationship with NZ Cricket's chief executive, David White, and talked of the need to have integrity, trust, honesty and accountability.

Taylor demonstrated what he was made of in Sri Lanka. Knowing that he was to be dismissed as captain and that he did not have the backing of the coach, he went out at Colombo and scored 142 and 74 to secure his team a series-levelling victory.

England's difficulty may be more tangential – apart, that is, from the minor bowling crisis that has begun to afflict them. Try as they might to deal with the matter in hand, their whole year is directed to two Ashes series. The two series against the Kiwis – three matches in New Zealand and two at home in May – are distractions along that road. Every man who plays for England will have the Ashes in mind.

But whether it is Joe Root or Nick Compton who opens the batting on Tuesday, or Stuart Broad or Chris Woakes who is the third seamer, they have to find a way quickly of dealing with the here and now.

England lose warm-up game: Hiccup can be cured by leading pace pair's return

England said they wanted tough cricket leading into the Test series, and boy did they get it. The tourists suffered a surprising three-wicket defeat by a New Zealand XI yesterday in their only first-class game before the three-match Test series begins on Wednesday.

Jimmy Anderson and Steve Finn will return to strengthen the fast bowling for that First Test, so England can still be optimistic. But to concede 334 runs in 88.4 overs as their opponents chased down victory with eight balls to spare was not part of the grand plan. England were last beaten in a tour match early in 2006 in India before going on to draw the Test series.

The Kiwi heroes yesterday were B J Watling, who added an unbeaten 89 to his first-innings 66 not out. He was joined in an eighth-wicket partnership by Neil Wagner, who has been called up to the Test squad as a fast bowler, and they put on 52 in 55 balls.

England declared at their overnight total of 256 for 9 but the Kiwis stayed in the hunt throughout. Graham Onions again struggled, bowling five no-balls in his 0-82, and Stuart Broad, likely to be recalled to the Test team as third seamer, took 2-90 from 21.4 overs, including being struck for a decisive six two overs from the end.

Stephen Brenkley

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