The grapevine will have told Michael Vaughan's side that Andrew Flintoff's comeback started in earnest earlier this week when he bowled in a competitive match for Lancashire against Sussex in Dubai, taking 2 for 9 in five overs.
The news is exceedingly good for England but not quite as encouraging for one member of Vaughan's side. If Flintoff is fully fit he plays and that means somebody has to make way. England's first home Test starts on 15 May and Flintoff has 23 days of competitive cricket to prove he is fit before the squad is selected.
The scenario adds an extra bit of spice to England's series deciding Test against New Zealand, which begins this evening. The player most likely to make way for Flintoff is a batsman and the all-rounder's huge shadow may just encourage a couple of them to dig that little bit deeper and post the first-innings hundred that the team so desperately needs.
The ramifications for a couple of the batsmen could be severe. Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell are most vulnerable, and both are in great need of a three-figure score. An axe could well fall at the end of the tour and neither would like it to be on their neck.
Strauss, Bell and the remaining members of England's top six are unlikely to get a better pitch on which to impress. The playing surface at McLean Park is like rolled concrete. It is flat, hard and devoid of live grass. In Wellington the seam bowlers just had to dob the ball on a good length and wait for something to happen. Here they will need to bend their backs to get any assistance, but those who do may obtain the rewards they are looking for.
In an attempt to unsettle batsmen on a flat, hard, bouncy pitch bowlers often try to bomb them with a barrage of well-directed short-pitched deliveries. The tactic is physically tiring but it could bring positive results for England, who are expected to name an unchanged side.
Ryan Sidebottom, James Anderson and Stuart Broad can all bowl with good pace but this is a pitch where an in-form Stephen Harmison could make a difference.
New Zealand's batsmen have not looked comfortable against good short-pitched bowling and such a method of attack could reap rewards. Daniel Vettori, the New Zealand captain, may well instruct his fast bowlers to adopt the same approach but England's batsmen appear more competent against the short ball. Reverse swing is likely to be a commodity both teams use. A dry, recently used, abrasive pitch is essential if the fielding side are to get a ball to reverse swing legitimately – no scratching with finger nails – and one such surface sits immediately next to the pitch being used in Napier.
The ball will make contact with the surface on a regular basis as batsmen push the ball to that side of the ground. The ball will often hit the rough old pitch on the first bounce and this will scuff it up.
"People keep saying that the game is already a draw because the pitch is so flat but five days is a long time," said Vaughan. "In 450 overs a lot of things can happen. The lads who played here in the one-day game last month said the pitch had a bit of pace and bounce in it but it was very, very true. We hope it has pace in it because pace can create opportunities and we believe we have an attack that can use those conditions.
"When there is pace in a pitch edges carry to slip fielders and opportunities can be created. We believe the ball does swing here so that is an option too, but we need to bowl with control and use the firepower we have and be a little unorthodox at times.
"Our aim is to start the game well. It is what we did in Wellington. We won the first day and when you do that you are a step ahead, and that is what we will be aiming to do here on Saturday. The win in Wellington was good but we have done nothing yet; we have won one game of cricket and the series is [tied] at 1-1. We really want to win this series. We have not won either of our last two."
New Zealand are likely to make two changes in Stephen Fleming's final Test before retirement to the side that lost at The Basin reserve, one as a result of injury, the other tactical. Kyle Mills will miss the Test with the knee injury he picked up in Wellington. Mills probing away with his swing bowling will be missed and Tim Southee, an exciting 19-year-old fast bowler, will replace him. The nature of the pitch makes Jeetan Patel's off-spin a more attractive proposition than Mark Gillespie's wayward pace too.
Vettori, like Vaughan, is determined to finish the series off with a victory. "If we were offered 1-1 before the start of the one-day series we would probably have taken it," admitted Vettori. "But the way that the one-day series went, the way we played in the first Test at Hamilton and at times in Wellington, we feel we have had an advantage.
"The side that wins or gets the better of a draw in this Test will probably have bragging rights over the Test and one-day series, but if we can take it we can say that this has been a pretty good summer for us, one that many people probably weren't expecting."Reuse content