New Zealand series has huge significance for England players targeting place in Champions Trophy
Kevin Pietersen return has others fighting to retain their place
This tour of New Zealand is in effect a series of final auditions in what is a big year for English cricket, perhaps its biggest. Those players who wish to be part of it must strut their stuff here.
Two Ashes series are being played and before them the Champions Trophy will be staged at home in June. Play badly in the next month and aspirations may recede to the point of no return, play well and the selectors’ hands will be forced.
The one-day series has assumed a significance which defeat in the first match did nothing to assuage and England’s long and rigorous training session before the second reinforced the notion that much is at stake. After this there are no more chances to impress.
Although the Ashes will grab most of the attention because of history and the enduring allure of Test cricket, the Champions Trophy, staged at three grounds over 18 days, represents a promising chance for England to win an ICC one-day competition at the 18th attempt.
England won the World Twenty20 in 2010 (and defended the title woefully last year) but they have never prevailed in a competition involving the longer limited overs format. After the 3-2 defeat in India last month, it was important for them to use the New Zealand leg of the tour effectively not merely to try to win but to prepare for the summer.
The absence of Kevin Pietersen, who has been resting, complicates matters. Along with four other players – Matt Prior, Nick Compton, Monty Panesar and Graham Onions – he will arrive for the Test leg of the tour at the weekend. But of those only Pietersen will play in the Champions Trophy, which means somebody from the present squad must make way for him.
It may be that Joe Root is the favourite to step aside because the changed fielding restrictions make it more possible for Pietersen to return to his old position at No 4. But Jonathan Trott, at 3, is vulnerable and there is a growing call for Eoin Morgan to bat higher up the order than No 5 despite his preference for that spot.
New Zealand have the potential to defy their best intentions. The country at large seems hardly to be aware that there is an international series taking place. The domestic rugby union season starts at the weekend and that will be that for meaningful cricket watching.
There remains a tranquil quality to the small towns here which can readily transfer itself to cricketers. It might explain why England, going into the Napier match, had won only 13 of the 35 one-day internationals they had played here.
But there is a relaxed attitude in the squad which was not conspicuously present in India. Perhaps the surroundings do it. In India, where England have spent five months of the last two years, they can walk out of a hotel and be greeted by several different manifestations of abject poverty intermingled with a mass of people.
In New Zealand, there are empty spaces and clear light. The journey between Hamilton and Napier the other day was through almost 200 miles of largely unpopulated and spectacular countryside.
At its end, this art deco seaside town exudes small town affability and while it would be pushing it to suggest that the Sunken Gardens of Napier, on the seafront, are in Hanging Gardens of Babylon wonders of the world category, they form part of a municipal delight.
Jimmy Anderson at last spoke about his pride in becoming England’s leading wicket-taker in all international cricket and his determination to prolong his career, helped by England’s rotation policy. It was in New Zealand five years ago where his displaced Matthew Hoggard in the test side and began the second crucial phase of his England career.
“You’ve got guys who are knocking on the door and I want to play until I’m 39 or 40 and put that record well away from anyone else,” he said. It is the effect of New Zealand.
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