Hobbiton, the village created by Peter Jackson in his film adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, sits in the lush green countryside on the outskirts of Hamilton, but England need their big men to turn up at Seddon Park on Wednesday morning to contest the first Test against New Zealand. If Michael Vaughan's under-pressure side are to produce the confidence-boosting start they require in the three-Test series, it is the likes of Stephen Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and the captain himself who must show the way.
It is a series England must and should win. New Zealand are a competitive and proud team, especially at home, with a starting 11 that contains several admirable cricketers, but they should be no match for an England side that plays to its full potential. Reaching such a goal has been the difficult and disappointing part of England's recent Test cricket. Vaughan's side contains many high quality players but there has been something missing from their cricket for some time.
Injury, complacency, fatigue, immaturity and unaccountability have all been cited as reasons for the team's downturn, but a single cause is yet to be pinpointed. In truth, it is probably a combination of issues that has led to England winning just two of the eight post-Ashes 2005 Test series they have played in.
When confidence is fragile it is vital for a team to start well and England's openers, whether it is Alastair Cook and Vaughan with the bat, or Hoggard and Ryan Sidebottom, who successfully came through a fitness test on his right hamstring yesterday, with the ball, someone needs to take on that responsibility. When three Tests are played in such a short period of time – 22 days – a poor first hour, session or day can have a dramatic effect. Momentum is suddenly gained by a team and before you know it the series has gone. A slow start for England would further dent their belief and possibly give the Black Caps the encouragement they need to pull off an unexpected victory.
"It is crucial that we do get off to a good start," admitted Vaughan. "The series could be won and lost by the way either top order bats on Wednesday. If we can get in to them early, we can get in to their powerful middle order quicker. It is the same for us, and Alastair Cook and I need to get us off to a good start. The pitch might do a little bit early on, as we have seen in the last week or so, so it is crucial we start well.
"Most teams do well in a game if they have a good first day. We have to make sure we get our disciplines right – bat and bowl and field well. I know that if you put those three disciplines together you generally get good results. The team is excited and vibrant going in to the Test series. The conditions here suit our style of play and hopefully that will win us the series."
Vaughan confirmed that England's batting line-up will be the same as it was against the New Zealand Select XI in Dunedin, with Strauss returning to the side and batting at three, Ian Bell coming in at five and Paul Collingwood at six. England are yet to finalise their bowling attack. They will wait to see if Sidebottom suffers any reaction to yesterday's fitness test, but Hoggard, Harmison, Sidebottom and Monty Panesar are expected to play.
The muggy conditions in Waikato should give the swing bowlers something to work with. Swing is an imprecise art and Stuart Broad, who is unlikely to play, was moving the ball in the air more than Hoggard and Sidebottom at practice yesterday.
Vaughan admits that the side are under pressure but refused to point the finger at himself or any of his players. "It is an important series for us all," he said. "I don't want to highlight any individuals because I don't sense there is a huge amount of pressure on senior players. I just think there is pressure on us as a unit to get back to playing good consistent cricket. We are committed to doing that and if we don't we have to be realistic – questions will be asked.
"There is not a day when you don't feel pressure as the England captain, but I haven't felt under any more pressure recently than a few years ago. As a team we realise we need to start playing some good cricket. Winning this series is very important for the development of this team."
The task will be made easier when England's batsmen start turning fifties in to hundreds. In their previous four Tests an England player has passed fifty on 13 occasions, yet only once – Cook in Galle – have they gone on to reach three figures. The conversion rate needs to be addressed. Vaughan admitted that the batsmen have spoken about the issue and said there was a strong desire to correct it.
New Zealand will consider their bowling options before naming their side. Daniel Vettori's interpretation of the pitch is different to Vaughan's. Vettori believes it may spin, thus increasing the possibility of Jeetan Patel playing ahead of Iain O'Brien. Small boundaries will not help his or Patel's cause.
* The India spinner Harbhajan Singh will not face action over claims that he made racist taunts, including monkey chants, to sections of the crowd in Sydney during the first match of the CB Series finals against Australia on Sunday.
Angus Fraser's possible teams and series itinerary
M P Vaughan (c)
A N Cook
A J Strauss
K P Pietersen
I R Bell
P D Collingwood
T R Ambrose (w)
M J Hoggard
S J Harmison
M S Panesar
D L Vettori (c)
M D Bell
J M How
S P Fleming
M S Sinclair
L R P L Taylor
J D P Oram
B B McCullum (w)
K D Mills
I E O'Brien
C S Martin
First Test (Hamilton, starts 21.30 GMT, tonight)
Second Test (Wellington, starts 21.30, 12 March)
Third Test (Napier,
starts 21.30, 21 March)Reuse content