New Zealand bring plenty of baggage for Ashes curtain-raiser

Further infighting over Kiwi captaincy makes intriguing subplot before Australia arrive

The forgotten tourists have arrived. New Zealand sneaked rather than stormed into town as the summer's warm-up act.

They were without their captain and their most accomplished batsman and appear still to be riven by internal strife. It is a compelling drama of its own but, through no fault of their own, whatever they achieve in the next two months the audience's attention will be elsewhere, directed to the top of the bill featuring the Ashes. That's showbiz, that's sport.

This might, of course, work in New Zealand's favour as it probably did when they met England at home two months ago. The Test series finished level at 0-0 but New Zealand were the better team for most of it. Only a desperate rearguard action on the last day of the third Test saved England.

For the return, England will once again insist that they have their eye only on the ball as propelled by the Kiwis. They will mean it, too, and they will also know that solid performances will give them an opportunity of playing against Australia in July.

But it will remain a distraction for the home side. All roads, all innings, all bowling spells lead to the Ashes. Perish the thought but England would be forgiven for losing to New Zealand if they were then to go on to defeat Australia twice in the consecutive series which will dominate the cricketing year.

Somehow they have to avoid this scenario. At least they are now fully aware of New Zealand's strength, determination and skill under their new captain, Brendon McCullum.

The Kiwis, to boot, continue to have their own issues. McCullum and his predecessor as captain, Ross Taylor, have not arrived with the rest of the squad because they are still on duty in the Indian Premier League. They will miss the opening match of the tour against Derbyshire beginning on Saturday but are expected to arrive in time for the second, against England Lions next week.

The pair's absence merely heightens the piquancy of the human drama. New Zealand cricket is still in a turbulent state after the mishandled sacking of Taylor as captain late last year.

All seemed to have been settled with their rousing exhibition against England, when McCullum showed himself to be an imaginative captain whose batting form thrived with the role and Taylor displayed signs of recovering his most assertive touch. But the day after the series finished, Taylor reopened the schism in a radio interview by saying: "I'm not as comfortable as I'd like to be. There are a lot of things that have happened."

The row became incendiary again when the former Test batsman John Parker, backed by other former internationals, published a 77-point report, entitled The Taylor Affair, which purported to reveal details of the events surrounding Taylor's sacking.

McCullum immediately threatened a defamation suit after being accused of playing a part in the sacking and New Zealand Cricket responded robustly to the allegations. A few days later, Parker delivered apologies, first to McCullum, acknowledging his claims were completely false and then to the coach, Mike Hesson, who was instrumental in Taylor's sacking. New Zealand's public initially was firmly on Taylor's side, partly because nobody thought he deserved what happened in the way it did and partly because people are weary of the way in which New Zealand Cricket has conducted its affairs. Taylor was told he was no longer wanted on a tour of Sri Lanka and demonstrated his sheer guts by scoring 142 and 74 in a series-levelling victory which proved to be his last match as captain.

After missing the tour of South Africa, still reeling from his unceremonious removal, Taylor returned to the side for England's tour and was given rapturous receptions whenever he went out to bat. But by the end of England's visit the quietly spoken, determined McCullum appeared to have made job his own, recovering superbly from the abject performances which led to the side being thrashed in the Test series in South Africa, where they were all out for 45 in the first match.

Perhaps if he could have sealed a series victory against England, as his side deserved, that might have closed the matter for good. But Parker and other former internationals remain bitterly disenchanted about the way cricket is being run.

That, rather than the manner of their revival, is bound to dominate the arrival press conference in London today which will be conducted by Hesson and Kane Williamson, who will captain the squad until McCullum arrives.

If nothing else, it will lend some much-needed spice to proceedings. On the evidence presented in March, New Zealand have a well-balanced squad whose bowlers should perform with aplomb in English conditions, and with enough batting to give England's seamers a run for their money.

The Lord's Test, starting on 16 May, is all but a sell-out, the second match at Headingley will be far from capacity. But the entire thing, sadly, will be a curtain-raiser.

New Zealand test match squad

B B McCullum (c), T A Boult, D A J Bracewell, D G Brownlie, P G Fulton, M J Guptill, M R Gillespie, T W M Latham, B P Martin, H D Rutherford, T G Southee, L R P L Taylor, N Wagner, B-J Watling, K S Williamson.

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