For the second overseas series in a row, England begin their tour with the shorter format matches. Two Twenty20 matches precede five ODIs, with a three-fixture Test series beginning on the 5th of March. Perhaps these arrangements represent the priorities of England’s (relatively) new set-up. Under Fletcher, England reached #2 in the Test rankings; a position they retained until the recent tour of India. Now lying 5th, England desperately need a winning series to stop the rot. Under new coach Peter Moores, however, there has been a marked improvement in England’s ODI performances. A series win down under could conceivably see England rise to 3rd.
In a strange reversal from recent years, there is arguably more confidence and stability in the ODI set-up. A lot will depend on the batting success of the wicket-keeper. Matt Prior was perhaps harshly treated in being dropped from team and squad after a tricky time with the gloves in India, but he certainly didn’t make the most of his power-play opportunities at the top of the ODI order. Ambrose and Mustard will vie for the slot this time around. Ambrose’s county batting average in the 50-over Friends Provident trophy last season of 88 could have made the selectors’ mind up, but an accomplished 49 by Mustard in the final of that competition at Lords showed that the Durham stopper can bat well under pressure. There aren’t major weaknesses in the rest of the team: England’s bowling unit have a combination of pace and swing (Broad, Anderson), control (Sidebottom, Collingwood), and guile (Swann). The batting line-up features world-class specialists (Pietersen, Collingwood), alongside players who have demonstrated that they can be quick and reliable scorers (Bell, Cook) and a sting in the tail (Mascarenhas, Swann, Broad). Although the Kiwis have long outshone England in this format, I predict another close overseas series win, 3-2.
Test success could depend on the batting at the top of the order. Strauss was given a new central contract before being dropped for the last series. He has now been recalled despite little evidence of a return to form. If the selectors’ gamble works, having three openers in Cook, Strauss and Vaughan could shore up a rocky top order and put the Blackcaps’ bowling attack under pressure; pressure that could be exploited by Bell at his preferred number 6. If it fails, England will hand momentum to their opponents. Their opponents will need all the help they can get. If there is a more unsteady batting line-up in Test Cricket than England’s, it is NZ’s. Record defeats at the hands of South Africa in November saw the Kiwis offer just 614 runs over four innings. While comfortable victories over Bangladesh will have restored some confidence, England will hope that New Zealand will crumble before a more penetrating attack. But is England’s a penetrating attack?
Since the 2005 Ashes, the national side’s bowling has lacked teeth, the sometime success of Sidebottom and Panesar notwithstanding. While those players will be key, the line between winning and drawing the matches hinges on the form of Harmison. His last soiree to the southern hemisphere went down in cricketing folklore for its series-opening wide to second slip. He still hasn’t recovered, and I, for one, don’t back him to in this series. His wayward deliveries will be boundary-fodder for the more talented of the Blackcap’s batsmen and will relieve pressure on them. I predict a 0-0 series draw.