A testing series awaits England, as the home summer gets underway tomorrow at Lord's. Touring New Zealand are the number one side in the world, and will hope to win this two match series to build momentum ahead of their World Test Championship clash with India.
Despite an impressive record at home, with the last series loss coming in 2014, England will be feeling vulnerable against New Zealand.
In captain Kane Williamson, the New Zealanders are led by a modern batting great, with a phenomenal Test batting average of 54.31. Worryingly, his recent form has been even better, with three centuries (including two doubles) in his last three Tests!
He is yet to show his skill in England, averaging 30.87 from the two, two-Test series in 2013 and 2015, but I'd expect him to put that right.
Furthermore, in opener Tom Latham, veteran Ross Taylor, and the retiring BJ Watling, New Zealand are a reliable Test batting unit, with players who can grind out runs. To paraphrase Geoffrey Boycott, they play "proper cricket".
To learn more about BJ Watling, and his impressive career, I'd recommend this video from Jarrod Kimber:
The New Zealand batting line-up may be proper Test batters, but the bowling is more varied, but also more threatening, especially to an England top seven that is mixed with inexperience and players yet to fully convince.
Although attack leader Trent Boult will miss at least the first Test, being rested, New Zealand have an impressive selection of quicks.
Left-armer Neil Wagner will cause England real problems. He's able to bowl very long spells, getting the ball right under a right-hander's armpit, making survival a challenge.
In what was a difficult tour of Australia in 2019/20, Wagner dominated against Steve Smith, with the Bradman-esque batter unable to score, despite having come from that heroic 2019 Ashes performance.
Wagner picked up 17 Aussie wickets at 22.76, going at just 2.54 runs an over.
He'll be joined by Tim Southee, who is third on the list of all-time Test wicket takers for New Zealand, behind only the great Daniel Vettori, and, of course, the legendary Sir Richard Hadlee.
26 year-old, 6 foot 8 Kyle Jamieson will also be in the attack, and he'll be aiming to add to his four five-fors he's taken in just six Tests so far! If he gets it right, I suspect he'll love that Lord's slope.
Matt Henry is also expected to play, and he'll definitely be a handful at Lord's, as we saw in the 2019 Men's World Cup Final.
This bowling attack will be very challenging, especially for an England side that still lack solidity in the top three, further hampered without the experience of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler in the middle-lower order.
Speaking of Stokes and Buttler, this will, remarkably, be the first Test since the 2017/18 Ashes where England take to the field without Buttler or Stokes.
This is a big blow, with the top seven a lot less experienced at international level. With all-rounders Chris Woakes and Sam Curran rested post-IPL, and Ben Foakes injured, trying to find a balance for the side is a nightmare-as we showed in our Inside Edge Picks!
It also raises the question as to why key players Stokes, Buttler and Woakes are rested. All three would make this XI much better, and, although they've gone through lots of bubbles, the cancellation of the IPL means they have not played much cricket.
Were this the first Test against India, or an Ashes Test, they'd almost certainly play. So why not against New Zealand?
As of these absences, finding a bowling attack is difficult, given the loss of Stokes' batting and bowling mix.
Should spinner Jack Leach be in the XI? Do one of Olly Stone or Mark Wood play for pace? If so, then can both Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson start? If so, then can there be a debut for Ollie Robinson, or a return for Craig Overton?
Speaking of Overton, it's worth reading his interview with Wisden's Taha Hashim, about a racist incident six years ago. He, to me, appears to be trying to understand, although the defence that he talks to Azhar Ali is a poor choice of words, at best.
Back to the XI, and it's worse for England with bat than ball.
Of the top seven, only Joe Root is assured of a spot, and his last Test hundred at home came in Sir Alastair Cook's last Test, way back in 2018!
And I say assured, but I'm less sure(!), with conflicting reports on the nature of his fitness, having been struck on the hand in the nets. If unfit, it's likely that Sam Billings will debut, or Haseeb Hameed will make his return.
The expected top three of Dom Sibley, Rory Burns and Zak Crawley have all made decent, but shaky starts to their Test careers.
All average under 35 so far in Tests, and on the tours of Sri Lanka and India this winter, there was little to show runs wise.
Sibley had two fifties in 12 innings, there was nothing above 50 for Burns in four innings, and one half-century for Crawley in eight innings. While these were challenging conditions for all bar Root, it is a concern.
Talented middle-order bats Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence fared little better. While the conditions were tough, it doesn't build confidence for the series ahead.
There are, though, bright spots for England. Anderson and Broad both appear to be at full fitness, and, presuming they play together, could easily win a Test for England.
Since Root took over as Test captain in 2017, Anderson has taken 144 wickets at 19.7, with Broad having picked up 59 wickets at 18.3 in the 2019 and 2020 home summers!
Broad, I'm delighted to say, as a Notts fan, has also been in great county form, with his 19 wickets in four games helping his county achieve a first win with the red ball since June 2018.
And Burns, who with 23 Tests, will be the second most capped player in the top seven (and likely the fourth most in the side), has found form in the County Championship, with 554 runs at 61.5 in seven games for Surrey.
He'll be hoping to add to his two Test centuries, after a disappointing 2020 summer that saw just two fifties in six Tests.
England fans can also be excited about the presumed debut of Robinson. The seamer has 279 F/C wickets at 21.04, and is highly rated across the county circuit. Matt Roller has a good read for Cricinfo on Robinson's methodological thinking, which makes for promising reading.
While Robinson is not certain to play, there will definitely be a debut for James Bracey. He's a talented top-order batter, and while he'll be keeping at seven (oh dear England!), it's a deserved debut for him, and hopefully he can make some runs, even though he'll be out of position.
In a positive negative, England will also be aided by the inequality in Test cricket:
New Zealand do not play enough Test cricket, which is a travesty, given how good they are at it.
But, it does mean that they are slightly inexperienced away from home, having played just three away series since 2017.
And because there are only two Tests, England need to win just one to avoid a series defeat.
They can do that, right?
Given both sides have quite slow batting line-ups, and with the English weather, I could see one Test ending in a draw. But, that would mean choosing a winner, and given that a) that's difficult and b) Lord's and Edgbaston are often good bowling decks, I'm going to really stick my neck out and go with 1-1!
I think this is quite likely, and, given the depleted nature of the England side, 1-1 would not be a disappointing result.
1) D. Sibley
2) R. Burns
3) Z. Crawley
4) J. Root (c)
5) O. Pope
6) D. Lawrence
7) J. Bracey (wk)
8) O. Robinson
9) J. Leach
10) S. Broad
11) J. Anderson
1) T. Latham
2) T. Blundell
3) K. Williamson (c)
4) R. Taylor
5) H. Nicholls
6) BJ Watling (wk)
7) D. Mitchell
8) K. Jamieson
9) T. Southee
10) M. Henry
11) N. Wagner
J. Root, J. Anderson, S. Billings, J. Bracey, S. Broad, R. Burns, Z. Crawley, H. Hameed, D. Lawrence, J. Leach, C. Overton, O. Pope, O. Robinson, D. Sibley, O. Stone and M. Wood.
K. Williamson, T. Blundell, T. Boult, D. Bracewell, D. Conway, C. de Grandhomme, J. Duffy, M. Henry, K. Jamieson, T. Latham, D. Mitchell, H. Nicholls, A. Patel, R. Ravindra, M. Santner, T. Southee, R. Taylor, N. Wagner, BJ Watling and W. Young.
The first England V New Zealand Test match starts at Lord's on Wednesday the 2nd of June, at 11am BST.
The second Test will be at Edgbaston, starting on Thursday the 10th.
There will be commentary via Test Match Special, on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, and play will be shown on Sky Sports Cricket. Highlights will also be available on the BBC, likely on BBC Two at 7pm.
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