For cricketers of a certain age – and not all of them are drawing their pension – it must be absurd to reflect. In the old days of not so long ago, England tours of New Zealand were a bit of a jaunt, a jolly wander through the Land of the Long White Cloud, where it was perfectly acceptable to bury your head if youso wished.
Such expeditions used to be tagged on to the end of the long tour of Australia. It was notquite like a royal visit, but the impression was not easily dispelled that the mother country was doing the Kiwis a favour, popping in to see the colonials on their way home.
What blessed relief it was the last time that happened, when Mike Denness's team arrived early in 1975 having been duffed up by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson and vented their sheer relief by doing some duffing-up of their own.
If those days have long since been banished– although in 1984-85 there were suggestions of the jolliness being excessive – it is still difficult to appreciate the sheer cricketing significance of the imminent tour. Heads are no longer in the clouds; they are on the block. England's party for a five-match one-day series left yesterday, those who will make up the Test squad will join them early next month.
While some leeway may,just, be permissible in theshort game, England simplyhave to win the Test matches. They can be as mealy-mouthed as they like about it, and their one-day captain, Paul Collingwood, was not slow in trying yesterday, but there are futures on the line between now and the end of March.
Collingwood is probably safe because he was not being disingenuous in saying that England are still learning. But not so in the Tests. Otherwise, questions will be asked about the Test captaincy of Michael Vaughan and the coaching of Peter Moores.
There is invariably the temptation to react inappropriately to sporting defeat. If it is the spectators' privilege to do so, it is also an unedifying modern spectacle. Vaughan's entire team of surgeons would have been kept in business for their whole careers by treating the knees which have jerked in reaction to uninspired England performances.
But England have in mind the winning of the Ashes in 2009. Sometimes it is possible to think that this is all they have in mind. But to have any prospect of doing that, they must enter the series with a winning record. Part of the reason they beat Australia in 2005 – only three years ago, but it seems like half a lifetime – was because they had the confidence imbued by a marvellous run.
Nobody should doubt the merit of that victory and how beautifully planned it was, and therefore nobody should easily dismiss the claims of Vaughan to continue in the job. Equally, he cannot blithely continue to talk of building a new side, because that new side haveto start acting as though they mean business.
On their last outing (Galle, late December) England were desperately disappointing. The initial judgement was that they lacked expertise. Yes and no. They also lacked intelligence.
As much as Vaughan will be scrutinised, so will Moores. He was the obvious candidate for the job last April and he is competent, thorough and well-liked. But the Test team he coaches have lost two successive series, something that never happened under his predecessor,Duncan Fletcher.
England have gone six Tests without any player scoring a first-innings hundred, five without a bowler taking five wickets in an innings. It is tempting to saythat it is as long since a wicket-keeper took a catch, but, of course, it is not.
In his assessment of New Zealand yesterday, Collingwood repeatedly referred to how dan-gerous they are. As a one-day side, this argument holds some water, though it is also true that in their previous two one-day series against decent opposition, South Africa and Australia, the Kiwis were soundly beaten.
As a Test side they are hapless. They lack players both of charisma and substance, and their top-order batting looks frail to the point of ineptitude. One measure of where they stand is that against Bangladesh recentlythey decided to recall the openerMatthew Bell six years after his most recent appearance. He had averaged barely into the mid-20s when last picked and will soon be 31.
England have their own soon-to-be 31-year-old opener to ease back into the side. On the slenderest of selectorial reasoning – he has had a bit of a rest – Andrew Strauss has now been recalled. He will almost cer-tainly open the innings in the Test matches, which will necessitate another reshuffling of the order. Does Vaughan move back to three, forcing Ian Bell to move yet again? They had betterdecide for good and all.
They also have to decide on who should keep wicket, which is bordering on being selectorially inexcusable. So do Australia, but for different reasons. The bowling looks reasonable enough, but it should notbe resisted for long by the opposition.
New Zealand are weak at present and it is probable they are in as big a mess as England. They are there to be beaten, and England must do so professionally and competently.
This week it was reported gleefully that the numbers playing cricket in England had increased by 47 per cent. That is almost as jolly as a tour of New Zealand used to be, but lose there and it could soon decline.