England offered a significant guide to their intentions for the Test series against New Zealand and beyond today. By selecting Nick Compton as opening batsman ahead of Joe Root in their only tour match the visitors appeared to confirm their contentment with the status quo.
But the strategy was complicated as the day unfolded against a New Zealand XI in the breathtakingly splendid setting beneath the mountain range appositely known as the Remarkables.
Compton made an uncertain 21 at the start of the first day while Root assembled a composed, unfussy 49. It was no real surprise when Compton, having played with his usual diligence, edged a lifting ball behind and it was remarkable indeed when Root had his off stump removed shortly after tea.
England finished the first day on 357 for seven on a pitch that provided encouragement to seam bowlers throughout. Ian Bell was the main contributor, starting circumspectly and ending in a state of pristine fluency. His 127 not out from 196 balls contained 18 fours, only four of which came in the first 50.
Alastair Cook, the captain, made 60 in characteristic style leaving nothing to chance and thus giving himself every opportunity of being honed in the longer game after six weeks of the shorter stuff.
However, the main issues at stake in the match involved Root and Compton, and Stuart Broad and Graham Onions, who are both in contention for the third seamer’s spot in the team for the First Test which begins in Dunedin next Wednesday.
Broad’s recent injury woes complemented by a loss of spark make Onions a viable contender if he can recapture the zest he shows for Durham.
Compton initially won and held the vacant opening batsman’s berth alongside Cook ahead of Root in India late last year and by picking him today it was clearly deemed to be his to lose. However, Root has burst on to the international scene like a meteor in the past two months.
His maiden Test innings of 73 in Nagpur — in a match nobody expected him to play — was followed by a litany of outstanding contributions in one-day internationals where his lowest score in seven innings is 28 not out and his average is 82.
While Compton by no means failed in his four Tests in India, nor was he an outrageous success conveying the impression he was here to stay. It was possible that England would decide that Root, at 22, was the man for the present as well as future and that Compton, at 29, had done his bit.
But by picking Compton now, they are also giving him the opportunity to play against Australia in two Ashes series later in the year which is a whole different ball game.
Short of match practice today, he could be forgiven the occasional play and miss against the new ball.
He demonstrated his chief virtues, patience and the willingness to leave the ball, which will have pleased his supporters. But after batting for a little under an hour he edged behind.
When Root dug in later, playing sensibly and never missing an opportunity to hit the bad ball, it offered pause for thought at least. Root and Bell put on 97 for the fifth wicket, much needed runs after England were 124 for four.
After Compton went neither Jonathan Trott nor Kevin Pietersen detained the New Zealanders for long. Trott was barely out of the blocks before he also edged Jimmy Neesham behind.
Pietersen was skittish throughout his innings of 35 minutes. He played shots that were not really suitable and was needlessly adventurous.
But he invariably treats warm-up matches in a dismissive fashion and it has little bearing on the three Tests which follow. He was caught at second slip for 14 after flashing at a wide one, also from Neesham.
Cook was out, also caught behind soon after lunch before Root and