England's lack of experience could be crucial

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The Independent Online

England have lost only two Test matches in New Zealand since tours began here in 1930, but that virtual monopoly will not be easy to maintain in the three-match series that begins here tomorrow (9.30pm GMT today).

The Kiwis, brilliantly led by Stephen Fleming, have cast off the inferiority complex that has held them back in the past. In its place, a robust self-belief has percolated through a team who now blend experienced players at their peak with feisty youngsters in almost perfect proportion.

It is a recent phenomenon and, watching the intensity which New Zealand brought to the trans-Tasman series against Australia recently, it seems ludicrous to recall the near indifference of the opening Test here against England in 1992.

Back then, rugby ruled both hearts and minds, but even that did not prepare England's captain, Graham Gooch, who, turning up for a net at 8.45am on the first morning of the match, found the ground locked up. It was not an oversight either and, after shouting for 10 minutes to no avail, he pulled rank and got Jack Russell to shimmy over the wall to go and get the groundsman to open up.

It will be very different this time and Fleming's side, with the all-rounder Chris Cairns, the spin bowler Daniel Vettori and the wicketkeeper Adam Parore filling key positions, begin as the narrow favourites. If they have a weakness it is the pace back-up to Cairns. With injuries to three regular fast bowlers, rookies such as Ian Butler have been brought in.

Unlike the home side, the make-up of England's team – there may be a late fitness test for Ashley Giles, who suffered a back spasm on Sunday – is perhaps an experienced player or two light. The last time England toured here, the leading lights were Michael Atherton, Darren Gough and Alec Stewart, none of whom will be walking out at Lancaster Park, or Jade Stadium as it is now called, tomorrow morning.

If this is a cause for concern the England captain, Nasser Hussain, was not showing it. His team of fledglings did him proud in India and he can now call on two old hands, Andrew Caddick and Graham Thorpe, to bolster, if not the morale, which is already high, then the potency of the team.

With the arrival of wives, families and girlfriends in New Zealand, the atmosphere has been less ascetic than in India. But if there have been intimations of this tour becoming more holiday camp than work camp, Hussain is confident that both he and his team "will keep their focus when the time comes".

Back in the city where he grew up, Caddick, who claims to relish leading the bowling attack in Gough's absence, could be England's match-winner, especially if the pitch has something in it and he can bring himself to pitch the ball a yard closer to the batsman. That way, balls that move off the seam or through the air are more likely to find the edge than pass it.

A fine technician, Caddick is not a bowler who gets wickets by sheer force of personality, as Gough has done when a pitch has flattened out. Like Graeme Hick, the Somerset man's body language is too easily read and opponents know precisely the moment they are getting on top. In a closely fought series, as this one should be, such little things can end up mattering a great deal and Caddick should expect both barbs and brickbats from opponent and spectator alike.

At the moment the portable pitch, which was dropped into place immediately after the Super-12 rugby match last Saturday, looks damp and grassy. If it remains so, and Giles is fit to bowl, England will probably play the extra batsman, Mark Ramprakash, and drop an all-rounder, probably Craig White. If the pitch goes flat, though, White, who can reverse-swing with a soft and worn ball, could be invaluable.

Whatever the final make-up of England's side, Hussain believes the vital component will be how quickly his young players adapt to the small details of playing in New Zealand, which are not radically different to conditions in, say, Canterbury or Hove.

In the past, it has been England's habit to start slowly, always a handicap in a three-match series, as happened in India before Christmas. In more familiar conditions, only the confidence should be necessary for England to fashion winning positions and so have the chance of maintaining their remarkable record in New Zealand.

ENGLAND (from): N Hussain (Essex, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M A Butcher (Surrey), G P Thorpe (Surrey), M R Ramprakash (Surrey), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), A Flintoff (Lancashire), C White (Yorkshire), A F Giles (Warwickshire), R Dawson (Yorkshire), J S Foster (Essex, wkt), W K Hegg (Lancashire), A R Caddick (Somerset), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire).

NEW ZEALAND (from): S P Fleming (capt), N J Astle, I Butler, C L Cairns, C J Drum, M J Horne, C S Martin, C D McMillan, A C Parore (wkt), M H Richardson, D L Vettori, L Vincent.

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