England v New Zealand: Never Mind The Aussies... Here's The Kiwis

A two test series against New Zealand may not be everyone’s idea of setting the pulse racing but for those in the know it promises to be a cracking, if truncated, battle for an experienced but tough England side against a team most certainly on the up.
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A two test series against New Zealand may not be everyone’s idea of setting the pulse racing but for those in the know it promises to be a cracking, if truncated, battle for an experienced but tough England side against a team most certainly on the up.

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A much improved young and vibrant Kiwi side were one ball away from winning the series against England back in March. A brave if occasionally fortuitous match saving innings of 110 (his seventh test century) over a gruelling four and half hours from the world’s undisputable No1 wicketkeeper batsman Matt Prior - burgeoning England legend and all round top bloke - in Auckland put paid to that. Along with a battling knock of 75 in just under six hours over nearly 300 balls from Ian Bell. Others English heroes chipped in too. Stuart Broad lacerated ankle pad and all 62 balls over 103 minutes to even get off the mark in a vitally obdurate knock that ran down the clock. And as for Monty, well with Jimmy Anderson falling two balls after Broad, he and Prior still needed to bat for a further 18 balls to make the game safe.

The drama was palpable, the excitement as gripping as it was unbearable and to top it all Monty dived for a run far earlier than he should have done - with the resultant effect being so absurd as to be comical. Somehow the shy missed the stumps and the off spinner from Luton made it home.

The gods were smiling on England that day, Prior had earlier fended a ball onto the stumps but incredibly the expected death rattle of the bails failed to materialise. On such events are Test Matches won and lost.

For everyone who watched it live, whether it be the Barmy Army over in Auckland or the hundreds of thousands including myself who stayed awake all night engrossed in the unfolding drama, don’t let anyone tell you 20/20 is thrilling. For me Test Match cricket is the only show in town.

Many agree. In the largest city in Europe with a million and one museums, art galleries and overpriced tourist tosh to attract your time, money and interest; with the race for fourth in the world’s richest football league still to be decided, in the middle of the deepest recession since the 30s, you can’t get a ticket for love nor money for the first four days of the Lords Test starting tomorrow. There may even be an appearance from the Beige Brigade, New Zealand’s very own version of the Barmy Army, who it has been rumoured also like a drink.

We face a New Zealand side which ridiculously is ranked eighth in the world, just below Bangladesh. Under the explosive Brendan McCullum’s attacking leadership – as befits a man who owns a horse, likes a bet and always looks slightly crumpled and dishevelled but in a hangover chic kind of way - the Black Caps have made strides back into respectability. A fact that is even more impressive considering the farrago in clumsily removing previous incumbent Ross Taylor, even if the rankings don’t reflect that just yet, as well as being skittled out for an embarrassing 45 at Newlands in the Cape Town Test earlier in the year on their way to a 2-0 series loss in which both games were lost by an innings. In a country obsessed by Rugby cricket comes a poor second – but against England in the previous series in the land of the long white cloud they certainly didn’t.

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This Kiwi team is staffed with promise. Crucially they have young bowlers who look capable of taking 20 wickets in a game in young Tim Southee and Trent Boult. Keep an eye on Southee with his knack of generating late outswing at pace, but for me medium fast left-armer Boult in particular, with his ability to move the ball both ways may be something of a handful on the capricious Lords slope under grey skies if he gets his radar right. Which is easier said than done. Stephen Finn, Middlesex and England fast bowler who started the previous series as counterpoint to a metronomic Jimmy Anderson has somewhat lost his way in the intervening months and may consider himself lucky to be picked ahead of a rejuvenated Tim Bresnan. The Tyke has started the season in reasonable nick after surgery on his troublesome elbow. (A man once described as having the look of someone who always had an emergency cheese roll in his back pocket).

KP is still out with bruising to the bone, even if the bruising to his ego has somewhat subsided after the momentous Test at Lords last August which turned out to be England legend Andrew Strauss’s last match. With KP’s team “rehabilitation” successfully complete he just needs his knee to be ready for the Ashes even if June’s ICC tournament on English and Welsh soil is too early for him.

Yet many a commentator has made the mistake of overlooking the next two Tests against New Zealand ahead of the Aussies in July. That would do a disservice to not only a fine young, newly resilient and potentially resurgent New Zealand side - but also to the notion of a Lords Test.

For me there really is nothing finer than the anticipation before the first Lords Test of the summer.

The bustle at St John’s Wood tube station, the walk down to the finest cricket ground in the world, the polite stewards who have been known to comment on the bottle of choice you have chosen to bring into the ground. (Lords is unique in sporting venues whereby it allows patrons to bring in a bottle of something – just make sure it isn’t Blue Nun or WKD40), the stroll past the nursery end whilst spotting the tree line, the Media Centre (or Cherie Blair’s smile as it has been called) buying the scorecard (made from the finest quality paper of course) and the walk up the stairs to my chosen stands – normally the Compton or Edrich Upper - ticket availability and funds permitting - to that first sight of the ocean of gently sloping green with the glorious Edwardian terracotta pavilion opposite.(Is there a finer piece of sporting architecture?) If the world was about to end there would be nowhere I’d rather be than at Lords. And this isn’t a cricket snob talking. I’ve followed the England football team to four tournaments from Japan to Germany, Holland and Belgium to Portugal, numerous qualifiers from Poland to Greece, to Azerbaijian to Israel to the 5-1 in Munich - not to mention countless riots a decade or two ago. To paraphrase many a Bridegroom’s cheesy speech – my love of Test match cricket and Lords makes me a better person.

Incidentally “Sledghammer” by Peter Gabriel was no1 the first time I watched New Zealand team play at Lords – a Martin Crowe century, Richard Hadlee’s 80-6 (now there was a bowler) and Graham Gooch’s 183, along with a regal Ritchie Benaud striding past my mate and me under the old grandstand were the highlights. Ken Rutherford a Kiwi strokemaker at the top of the innings also played in that game. Wisden said of him at the time that “he may need no more than a long Test innings to make the difficult transition to the highest level.” (With a batting average of just over 27 he never did “make the difficult transition”).

However his son Hamish Rutherford scored an impressive 171 on his debut against England in the first Test of the series back in NZ far surpassing his dad who bagged a pair on debut. How he will fare on his first tour of England is just another fascinating subplot to this – for the connoisseur at least – most eagerly awaited series that starts at 11am Thursday.

Just don’t mention the Ashes.

You can follow Layth on Twitter @laythy29