Over recent years England have typically played host to two teams during their summer season with the first, often - if perhaps unfairly - treated as a warm-up to the greater, and longer series that follows it. This time, however, things are different. New Zealand, bracketed as inferior are a unit who have never looked more threatening, while England, still engulfed in a vicious malaise, seem to have forgotten how to win cricket matches.
After being condemned to a shock 1-0 defeat by Sri Lanka last year, the might of the Black Caps is a challenge that will not be taking them by surprise. The latter's newfound, unerring aggression, spearheaded by the boldest of the bold in Brendon McCullum, has led them to a World Cup final on home soil and rapidly into a formidable Test outfit. Since their last tour of the British Isles, they have won eight matches, drawn five and come unstuck only twice.
England, meanwhile, have lurched and spluttered from one failure to another, and combined with the very public backroom uncertainty, they look more exposed and vulnerable than ever before. There is a very real chance that they could be beaten and that New Zealand will claim a first Test triumph on English shores for 16 years.
Despite being afforded a more substantial preparation to the series than their opponents - the Kiwis have not took to the field since that World Cup final loss to Australia in Melbourne - England flew back from their three-match tour of West Indies with more questions than answers. The experiment to open with Jonathan Trott was one that was to account for the batsman's career after a paltry return of 72 runs from six innings - including three ducks - prompted him into international retirement.
The bizarre choice to pick Trott has left opener-elect, Adam Lyth, without considerable match practice ahead of his Test debut. A dogged Alastair Cook showed immense fighting qualities as he recorded a first hundred in almost two years in Barbados, a knock that was accompanied by two half-centuries in the match prior. However, he is sure to be subject to a more thorough examination when he walks out at Lord's on Thursday against a more potent attack than in the Caribbean, in what is likely to be swinging conditions.
Charge of the Kiwi brigade
That potent attack comes in the form of Tim Southee and Trent Boult, two of the stars at the World Cup. The former bamboozled England in Wellington with the white ball, as he swung his way to seven for 33 as New Zealand run riot. Boult's left-arm bullets continue to serve him well and the 25-year-old’s 11 wickets from two matches versus Sri Lanka - his country's last Test series - suggests he will be amongst the action once again. Another pacer, Matt Henry, may also have the fortune to play his first Test at Lord's, a luxury usually reserved for the English. Doug Bracewell and Neil Wagner are the other two contenders in the seam department, and whether the pitch is green or not may determine if McCullum will opt for a quartet of quicks, or just a trio.
While the bowling looks stacked with talent, the willow-wielders are also a settled bunch. The impressive Kane Williamson is making the number three spot his own, and with Ross Taylor and McCullum to come after him, New Zealand have strength in numbers. Williamson’s arrival with the rest of the squad has been delayed due to Indian Premier League commitments but he is still expected to be available for the first Test.
Captain BJ Watling has stepped up since being given the armband and his unbeaten 142 in January was instrumental in seeing off Sri Lanka. Tom Latham and Hamish Rutherford have occupied the opening slots of late, but with Martin Guptill selected after a two-year exodus from the five-day scene, Rutherford - who averages less than 30 from 16 Tests – could be the man to make way.
Potent English team prone to collapse
England can take solace in their performing youngsters. Gary Ballance and Joe Root have plundered bowlers mercilessly at three and five, accumulating towering averages of 62 and 55 respectively. Their youthfulness sandwiches the experience of Ian Bell, who will be keen to refind some touch after being dismissed for a pair in his last outing. Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes look set to carry on at six and seven, while wicket-keeper Jos Buttler completes a lengthy batting line-up.
Now England’s leading wicket-taker in Tests, James Anderson will lead the attack once more and after a successful spell in the Caribbean, the swing master is well-placed to exploit the bowler’s joy that is early season England. Chris Jordan’s raw pace has kept him in favour but a lack of command, and wickets, could allow Durham’s Mark Wood into the mix. Stuart Broad will be the other fast-bowler while the lack of an out-and-out spinner puts responsibility firmly on Moeen.
In that sense, England’s prospects don’t sound hopeless. But as displayed in the third Test against West Indies, they remain prone to collapse. Killer instinct is another attribute which few in the team seem to possess, a toothless effort saw them unable to achieve victory despite giving themselves 130 overs to bowl the opposition out in the first Test of that aforementioned series. Coach Peter Moores has been given a rather unceremonious boot following a listless tenure in charge, leaving Paul Farbrace as stand-in instructor while they go in search of a more permanent replacement.
New Zealand on the other hand, have thrived under the pressure and are quickly gaining a reputation for being an XI of the cool and clinical. They were the darlings of the neutrals at the World Cup as they dispelled the underdog myth to become one of the tournament favourites. That may have been in the ODI format but many who excelled there will be in England, and success breeds success. It is of no debate that they will be the more confident dressing room.
It is telling that the Poms most discussed player is one who won’t be taking to the pitch at Lord’s. Kevin Pietersen divides opinion but the latest phase of the ongoing saga which has seen his England hopes quelled again, even after crunching 355 not out for Surrey in their County Championship match against Leicestershire. He was likely never to be in contention for this series – stating his desire was to earn a recall for the Ashes – but the cloud still lingers. Fans are split, and with England finding match-winning a painful ordeal, cries for the maverick to be brought back are not about to go away.
So, with the blueprint laid out, two key considerations can be made. New Zealand are in an ocean of calm whereas HMS England is situated in choppy waters. Regrettably, this will only be a two-Test battle; a series of such intrigue deserves far more. However, a wall of Black Cap solidarity will form in London on Thursday, and if England are unable to regroup in earnest, their defences will be breached again.