First Test preview: Must-win series for ailing England

Victory is essential if tourists are to be seen as serious contenders – but their batting policy is bizarre while four bowlers is a risk
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The Independent Online

If England are to be serious Test contenders again, which in reality means one thing, they must win the series in New Zealand. Not only that, they should do so staring down at the Black Caps from a faraway hill.

The only fun in unthinkable defeat would come from the inevitable trotting out of the positives which would have been gleaned. Something like: "We've been pleased to play at some of the less obvious international venues, and the players have adjusted well to performing in front of small crowds."

It should not come to that. A glance at the strength of both sides suggests England should win at least two of the three games. The 17th Test series between the sides Down Under begins at Hamilton on Tuesday. England's record in the country is perhaps not as auspicious as it should be – eight series wins, but only two in the last six.

If those results reflect a gradual improvement in New Zealand cricket, it would appear to have reached a plateau on to which they are hanging grimly. The home side have lost too many players to retirement or Twenty20 Leagues in India to be competitive for long.

This time, therefore, England should win without fuss, though it might have come to something that they will be desperate for Ryan Sidebottom to be fit. It is expected that his hamstring will have recovered, but it was never expected that he would be England's most dependable, incisive bowler. Sidebottom and his deceptively quick left-arm swing have grown in stature with almost every match since his unexpected recall against West Indies last summer, and he has deserved much better returns.

It would be helpful if the new wicketkeeper, Tim Ambrose, could hold catches off him, though since England selectors' research into potential keepers appears to consist of checking that they can hold the right end of the bat, do not hold your breath.

New Zealand will be greater than the sum of their parts but they are brittle in both batting and bowling. Any promise in their ranks does not equate to achievement. Their only batsman of substance and experience in the squad of 13 named yesterday is Stephen Fleming, and he has already announced that this will be his final series. He may want to go into the sunset with bat blazing but he is only 34, which indicates that he is tired of cricket.

The bowling attack will be led by Chris Martin, an honest journeyman who has taken 125 Test wickets at an average of 32.47. But it would have been better if Martin had been able to play Ewen Chatfield (whose record is 123 wickets at 32.18) to Shane Bond's Richard Hadlee. Bond, however, has gone to the Indian Cricket League for bigger bucks than New Zealand Cricket could dream of, let alone afford.

So much for New Zealand. England have been no great shakes lately, and the optimistic noises emanating from the dressing room cannot conceal the paucity of performance. Last time out, in Galle, they were woeful in conception and execution if not spirit. All roads lead to the 2009 Ashes – it is the official policy of the England and Wales Cricket Board – and anybody who wants an idea of what might await them upon arrival there, given recent form, should watch, say, the closing frames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

As a starting point, England have to begin posting challenging totals again, first-innings scores on the back of which their bowlers can launch an attack. In their previous six Tests, not one England batsman has scored a first-innings hundred. That means the innings total has not once reached 400, the point at which winning becomes a reasonable prospect.

The upshot has been two successive series defeats, which was the case the last time they had a worse run (nine matches without a first-innings hundred spanning 1997-98, and losses to Australia and West Indies).

England have fiddled again with their batting order, for no apparently sound reason, and it is to be hoped the left-handers know what the right-handers are doing and vice versa. It means the left-hand, right-hand combination of Alastair Cook and Michael Vaughan will stay and Andrew Strauss will bat at three. Ian Bell will move to five.

There were welcome hundreds yesterday for both Strauss and Bell in the final warm-up game. It was Strauss's second hundred in his past four innings – he made one for Northern Districts a fortnight ago. Bell is usually in form, a fact not always demonstrated by his conversion of fifties to hundreds for England – none of the most recent six he has made in the past eight matches. Perhaps it should not matter much at this level, perhaps it should matter more, but Strauss has never batted at three for England in any of his 43 Tests, Bell has not batted at five in 32 matches since his debut in 2004. It is sincerely to be hoped that this is not policy on the hoof.

The batting has the wherewithal to perform adequately, and while Kevin Pietersen had a quiet time of it in Sri Lanka before Christmas, he was also in the midst of wedding plans then. Expect payback.

The most worrying aspect of England's cricket is that there will be only four bowlers. Nobody can be off form, nobody can afford to be injured. It is asking a lot. England still ought to win with something to spare. If they are serious contenders.

Six of the best

1) Hamilton, which hosts the opening Test on Tuesday, is New Zealand's largest inland city with a population of 131,000. It staged its first Test in 1991.

2) England are the last of the 10 Test nations to play at Seddon Park (named after former Prime Minister Richard Seddon) and lost their only ODI at the ground by 10 wickets last month.

3) In the first Test at the ground, Andrew Jones of New Zealand and Asankha Gurusinha of Sri Lanka each scored hundreds in both innings, only the second instance of a player from either side doing so in the same match.

4) Of the 13 matches at the ground, New Zealand have won five and drawn six, losing to Pakistan and Australia, but have not lost there for five matches.

5) Chris Cairns produced the best bowling spell at the ground, 7 for 27 against West Indies.

6) The highest individual score, 192, was made by Stephen Fleming against Pakistan.