England’s habit of injudicious starts to Test series overseas has long been hard to kick. It is as if they are addicts who know what they are doing is wrong and unhelpful but simply cannot help themselves.
There was at least no attempt to pussyfoot around what occurred as England batted appallingly to tumble to 167 all out on what was the opening day of the series after the official first day of the series was washed out and New Zealand responded with 131 for 0, a true reflection of the state of the pitch.
Jonathan Trott, top scorer with 45, said: “There is no place for feeling sorry for ourselves or thinking we didn’t get the rub of the green because you earn that in cricket.” He had no explanation for their poor starts to overseas series which has seen them dismissed for under 200 in the first innings of their last four tours.
“We tried to correct it but we just didn’t get it right,” he said. “It was really bad and you can’t get away from the fact.”
Only two men were scoreless for England out of the 10 men who fell in 55 overs, but they were the least culpable. They could hardly be at more contrasting stages of their excursions through international cricket: Nick Compton has it all to do, Kevin Pietersen has done it all.
They made a fascinating comparison, these two batsmen, both born in South Africa but of different hues. Compton has become an England opening batsman by dint of nearly 10 years of hard graft on the county circuit. Pietersen was destined to feature for England from the moment he played his first match at Lord’s, for Nottinghamshire in 2001, and scored 165. He was the man for the occasion then as he has been since, and Lord’s is always an occasion.
Compton has set his heart on playing for England against Australia, initially this summer and then next winter. To do that he is fully aware that he has to deliver some big runs one day soon. His whole batting career may be defined by whether he plays in at least one of those two Ashes series. He is an intense player as Alastair Cook, the England captain, conceded the other day. That component of his personality may be exacerbated by the thought of Australia.
Perversely, if Compton were to be told now that he would definitely be one of England’s openers this summer – which of course cannot happen – it may free his mind and his body so much that he plays with unfettered success against New Zealand.
Cook said of the man who has succeeded Andrew Strauss as his opening partner: “Clearly he’s a very different character to Straussy. He’s an intense guy, but that’s worked very well for him. I think that single-mindedness that he’s got means when he gets in, he’s very hard to get out.
“Straussy and I played a lot of cricket together. We’re quite similar in character. I think Compo and I are probably quite different in character, but that probably doesn’t really matter too much. One of the good advantages of having Compo there is the left-hand and right-hand combination.”
There is abundant goodwill towards Compton for two substantial reasons. The first, which may annoy him as much as he recognises its inevitability, is that he is the grandson of Denis Compton, one of the copper-bottomed legends of the English game.
It is entirely natural that we should wish to see another Compo grace the Test arena, and though this one would do it in a less poetic fashion that is not the point. The second reason is that Compton has worked his socks off on the county circuit, first for Middlesex and then for Somerset, to gain the selectors’ attention.
Time was probably running out for him last year when he began and ended the season with a bang. His first innings was a hundred – a double actually – and so was his last, with plenty in between.
Yesterday at the quaintly packed University Oval, Compton’s first mistake was his last. He played diffidently forward to his fourth ball, something he has avoided in his previous Test innings and if he was unlucky that the ball rebounded from bat to stumps, the timidity of the shot invited peril.
It will probably affect him deeply after his failures in the only warm-up match last week and his continuing inability in India, where he played his first Tests, to develop solid starts. There were five scores of 29 or above, none more than 57.
And then there is Pietersen. It was a jolly decent delivery to receive when you have just come to the wicket, a late, full in-swinger, and on this occasion he missed it. But Pietersen knows already that he is playing in the Ashes this summer and next winter unless there is some unforeseen cataclysm, which is always possible with him. He knows his game and he is a big game player as he has demonstrated time and again. New Zealand at the University Oval, Dunedin, while having all the trappings of a Test match, may not quite be it.