England players facing make or break challenge against New Zealand
Career-defining roles on biggest stage are at stake for Cook's side in two Test series as spectacular Ashes contest looms
England begin a cycle of international cricket today which may make or break careers. By its end some people may be on their bike.
The immediate task at hand is to defeat New Zealand and to do that they must avoid at all costs thinking of the challenges beyond.
It is likely that the A-word has been banned in England's dressing room. The Ashes, home and away later this year in case anybody had forgotten, will have to take care of themselves.
Yet each and every player who steps out at Lord's today for the first Test of two against New Zealand, from the captain, Alastair Cook, down will be all too aware of what is at stake, that this is only the start of something special. The scenario is complicated by the fact that New Zealand are a genuine menace.
Three months ago, it seemed a cast-iron certainty that the Kiwis were the ideal guests for the early part of the summer, just about deserving of their Test status but posing no real threat, an old-fashioned, knockabout warm-up act who long ago shed pretensions of star billing. In short, they would provide nothing more than a tough, though sometimes gentle, middle practice.
All that changed in three weeks of highly competitive if not always searingly entertaining cricket in New Zealand last February and March. England had gone there expecting to win the Test series comfortably, a feeling that was reinforced by the vast majority of New Zealanders, who were convinced that their team would be on the wrong end of a thrashing.
It did not work out like that for reasons still unexplained, though England have doubtless spent many of their closed-room sessions since trying to deduce what the deuce happened. As for New Zealand, they have had time to reflect that however well they performed they did not manage to bring home the bacon, or in their case perhaps, the lamb.
England clung on for a drawn series and it is those rearguard actions which give them sustenance now. If New Zealand could not finish the job at home then it might be far too much away.
Cook, on the eve of his first home Test as captain, was in serious mode. It was as if he fully recognised that this summer and autumn – which also include a Champions Trophy at home next month – are as big a deal as cricketers have been involved in. He was careful to avoid talking it all up and in doing that the poor fellow talked it all down.
His counterpart, Brendon McCullum, was much more relaxed and forthcoming. Cook was wary of giving anything away. Had he been asked the colour of his eyes he might have closed them for fear of revealing too much to the opposition. But he was sure the Ashes and all that they mean to England's cricket would not affect the here and now.
"Firstly there's the challenge ahead of us from New Zealand," he said. "They showed in those three Test matches over there they're going to be a very tough side to beat. But also a skill as a sportsman is that you do just stay in the present.
"You don't look too far ahead, you're always worried about your next innings, or your next over if you're a bowler. That is a skill sportsmen have, you stay very much in the present, so I don't think we should be overly worried about it."
Up to a point, Captain Cook. If nothing else, every single player will be aware that poor performances against New Zealand might cost them dear come the Ashes. England already have a team for Australia pencilled in and it is pretty much the one that will play today save for two possible exceptions: Kevin Pietersen will return as a batsman, and the selectors would like nothing more than for Chris Tremlett to be in serious reckoning as a bowler.
That provides extra incentive for all, but particularly perhaps for Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Steve Finn and Stuart Broad. Of course, they want to be there today at Lord's, the greatest ground in the world, but only to prove that they deserve the chance to be there again in July against Australia.
Cook, in line with England's peculiar philosophy, said they would pick the best team to win the match. He hinted that this might embrace the omission of the off-spinner, Graeme Swann, but this is distinctly unlikely since the last time they tried that, at Headingley against South Africa last year, it was so patently wrong.
"There's always a chance in these conditions," he said of Swann's possible omission. "We've got options to play with and we'll be looking tomorrow to try to get the best of them. It has crossed our minds."
By the second week of January, England will have played 12 more Test matches, 10 of them against Australia. Some men will have enhanced their reputations, some may have been crushed by events or feel they have reached a natural conclusion.
First, they have to find a way of dealing with New Zealand. Their bowlers have to rediscover their ability to swing the ball and recognise that conventional swing can be as significant as reverse swing.
Their batsmen must pledge themselves unswervingly to building a first-innings total, which they twice badly failed to do two months ago. England are odds-on favourites to win match and series, but that was true then too.
First Test: Lord's details
England A N Cook (capt), N R D Compton, I J L Trott, I R Bell, J E Root, J M Bairstow, M J Prior (wkt), S C J Broad, G P Swann, S T Finn, J M Anderson.
New Zealand B B McCullum (capt), P G Fulton, H D Rutherford, K S Williamson, L R P L Taylor, D G Brownlie, B J Watling (wkt), T G Southee, N Wagner, B P Martin, T A Boult.
Umpires Aleem Dar (Pakistan) & Steve Davis (Australia).
The pitch looks dry and should behave impeccably. It may become better as the game progresses.
Sky Sports 1 live, 10am-7pm. Highlights: Channel 5, 7pm.
Cool and overcast with sunny intervals. Chance of rain late in the day. Maximum temperature: 14C.
England to win 8-11 Draw 6-4 New Zealand to win 11-1.
Where the Test may be won
Batting: Ian Bell v Ross Taylor
England's most experienced player will be expected to deliver, while former captain Taylor seeks a positive return after his brief exile.
Bowling: James Anderson v Trent Boult
Anderson was overshadowed by the New Zealand quick and will hope for more of an impact back on home soil.
Captains: Alastair Cook v Brendon McCullum
McCullum hit three fifties earlier this year while Cook has passed fifty once in his last eight innings and needs a return to form.
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