Headingley pitch may hold key for England

Michael Vaughan believes the pitch at Headingley will go through phases. The England captain feels there will be times when the surface favours batsmen and others when it looks like a minefield. David Byas, the Yorkshire coach, thinks it will be a belter and the batsmen will prosper. Richard Blakey, meanwhile, after keeping wicket at this venue for 19 seasons, reckons it will be uneven and the bowlers should have a field day.

Michael Vaughan believes the pitch at Headingley will go through phases. The England captain feels there will be times when the surface favours batsmen and others when it looks like a minefield. David Byas, the Yorkshire coach, thinks it will be a belter and the batsmen will prosper. Richard Blakey, meanwhile, after keeping wicket at this venue for 19 seasons, reckons it will be uneven and the bowlers should have a field day.

Yorkshiremen have rarely shied away from offering an opinion on any subject, but one of the joys of the Headingley Test is that nobody knows what will take place. The white strip of tailored turf in the middle of this lush green field acts as a magnet to those with an interest in the game, but once arriving here men nervously start scratching their heads and taking quizzical looks at the skies.

For Vaughan and Stephen Fleming, the New Zealand captain, the uncertainty of who to pick and what to do normally ends once the coin has hit the ground. But on this occasion it will herald the start of a precarious and potentially hazardous wait for Vaughan and England. Vaughan's wife, Nichola, is due to give birth to their first child during the second Test and yesterday the England captain said he would like to be there.

This desire will not prevent the 29-year-old playing and Vaughan will carry on batting should his wife go into labour while he is at the crease. But should he be fielding, or watching from the England balcony, he will rush to his car and dash down the M1 to a hospital in Sheffield, 40 miles away.

In these circumstances New Zealand would be within their rights to deny England the use of a substitute fielder but the tourists will allow Vaughan to be replaced. The generosity of the Kiwis has a limit though. They have stated that if Vaughan walks off the field his absence should be treated in the same manner as that of an injured or ill fielder. Vaughan would therefore not be able to bat until England have batted for the amount of time he was away. But should they lose five wickets before this time has elapsed Vaughan is allowed to come in at seven.

Vaughan will not be the first England player to play in these circumstances. Steve James, the former Glamorgan and England opener, went through this during the Test against Sri Lanka at the Oval in 1998. But fortunately for James his wife gave birth during the night and he was able to make the journey form Cardiff to London before the start of play.

There have also been occasions when players have missed games to be at their wife's side. Last year Shaun Pollock, the South African seamer, made himself unavailable for the Test at this ground so that he could attend the birth of his first child.

It is understandable that Vaughan wants to be with his wife but it is an unwelcome distraction for England as they attempt to wrap up the series. Though it is unlikely, there is a chance that he may have to dash back to Leeds should England lose four or five quick wickets. I can see the situation now. With the television on in the corner of the ward the conversation could go something like this: "Come on luv, push, push, push. Sorry, I've got to go - Flintoff's just chipped one to mid-off and we're five down. Good luck - I'll see you later."

Vaughan's dilemma would be made easier if he continued to open but he chose yesterday's press conference as the stage on which confirm his move to No 4. "I feel it is a positive step," he said. "It has been something we have been thinking of doing for quite a while. In Andrew Strauss we have found a really good replacement for me at the top of the order and this is the perfect time for me to slip down to four. It is a key position and I feel I am up to the task."

England will wait until this morning before they decide on their final XI but Paul Collingwood could well oust Ashley Giles. England's specialist spinners have had little success here in the last 10 Tests: between them they have taken five wickets at an average of 83.2.

New Zealand are not without problems themselves, and their chances of getting back into this series were not helped when Fleming added his name to the list of doubtfuls for today's game. He missed practice yesterday with an ear infection but the Black Caps hope their captain will be fit enough to play.

New Zealand will wait until the last minute before they decide whether to risk playing the injured pair of Jacob Oram and Craig McMillan.

But England need to be wary. The Kiwis love being the underdog. It often brings the best out of them.

England (from): MP Vaughan (captain), ME Trescothick, AJ Strauss, MA Butcher, PD Collingwood, GP Thorpe, A Flintoff, GO Jones (wicketkeeper), AF Giles, SP Jones, SJ Harmison, MJ Hoggard, MJ Saggers.

New Zealand (from): SP Fleming (captain), MH Richardson, NJ Astle, SB Styris, CD McMillan, BB McCullum (wicketkeeper), CL Cairns, JDP Oram, DL Vettori, DR Tuffey, CS Martin, KD Mills, MHW Papps, MS Sinclair.

Umpires: SJA Taufel, SA Bucknor.

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