England’s batsmen can only hope now that it will be all right on the day. They fluffed their lines like a dressing room full of ham actors in the second and final dress rehearsal yesterday.
When the curtain goes up on Wednesday it may be different. The roar of the crowd and the sense of occasion – if such can be assured at the University Oval, Dunedin for the first Test – may concentrate minds and hone techniques.
The Queenstown ground, complete with the bizarre combination of scenic mountain ranges and light aircraft all around, is not best equipped in that regard. If there is slight cause for worry, there is none at all to panic but, when England fell to 67 for 4 against a New Zealand XI on the third day of their only warm-up match, it left some of their leading batsmen uncomfortably short of time in the middle.
Between them the Nos 2, 3 and 4 – Nick Compton, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen – mustered 65 runs in their total of six innings in the match and faced 155 balls. This is probably a case of statistics proving nothing but to a man they would have preferred at least one more match to try to improve on them.
Being unprepared, or at least underprepared for the big occasion is an occupational hazard for international cricketers. When England go to Australia next winter, they will have three warm-up matches and a whole month of practice before the Test series. But that is the Ashes and this is not. One match and 10 days it is and one match and 10 days it will be almost everywhere.
Had it not been for Matt Prior’s dashing innings England’s embarrassment might have deepened as the afternoon wore on. But Prior played the way he knows best; driving, cutting and re-establishing England’s second innings with 68 from 76 balls. It almost goes without saying that his chief assistant was Joe Root who made only 17 but shared a partnership of 103.
This is Prior’s 10th Test tour with England and he has seen it all by now. He was not falling for the line that England’s batting might be undercooked.
“I don’t think it’s a concern,” he said. “Obviously guys would love to go into the first Test with big hundreds behind them but it’s not always possible. You walk out into the middle sometimes, you nick your first ball and off you go again. The most important thing is going into next week feeling good.
“Getting a score behind you does help but it’s not the be all and end all. The surfaces that we have been able to prepare and train on have been outstanding. It would be great to have a load of warm-up games and have training camps but it’s just not possible with the schedules we have.”
As Prior also observed, it could have been worse and there were those who feared it would be worse. England might have rolled up to Queenstown and found opponents ready to roll over and have their tummies tickled. That would certainly not have helped. Before England played Pakistan in the UAE a year ago they had two fairly soft warm-up matches and proceeded to be hammered 3-0 in the subsequent Test series.
“This for us perfect,” said Prior. “It’s absolutely what you want from your warm-up games, tough, challenging cricket and challenging situations. It’s all well and good turning up and smacking 500 and then bowling them out for 100 in both innings but I’m not sure that gets you anywhere. A day of tough cricket like we had has been brilliant for us.”
The tourists knew they had been in a contest after the third day. Their bowling went the journey in the morning when 125 runs came in 95 minutes and their batting went nowhere in the afternoon.
It was a salutary morning for Graham Onions and an unsuccessful one for Stuart Broad. Onions went for 22 in one over and almost everything he tried went wrong as figures of 1 for 131 testified. After the New Zealand XI declared 77 behind at 349 for 7, which had not been in England’s thinking, Onions stood out in the middle awhile re-examining his run up and delivery stride. He was probably thinking it may be a long month ahead.
Compton mishooked, Pietersen was caught behind down the leg side, Trott flailed at a wide one. Prior remedied the immediate position and Graeme Swann’s swashbuckling was a breath of fresh air in a place it could hardly be fresher.