Saturday, 23 February 2013

On Top, Down Under?

The limited over jamboree has come to an end, with England successful in both the T20 and the 50 over contests against a spirited New Zealand side, no slouches in those formats.  The Test series is now upon us, and the continuing journey back to the top of the world rankings under the captaincy of Alastair Cook begins again.

It is however the captaincy of our opponents that has overshadowed the build up to both the recent Kiwi tour to South Africa and this series.  Ross Taylor, the mercurial middle order batsman and captain since Daniel Vettori stood down, was removed from office by the new head coach Mike Hesson after a series in Sri Lanka for the limited overs sides.  Taylor was offered the chance to continue as Test captain, but felt aggrieved and chose to sit out the South Africa tour entirely.  Hesson, sensing a public relations breakdown, tried to infer that the move was designed to increase Taylor's use to the side.  The sporting public in New Zealand didn't seem to take this, and indeed some of the senior players were quick to show their support for "Rosco".  Opening batsman Martin Guptill dedicated his T20 century during the South Africa series to the outgoing skipper.  Hesson was not assisted by the teams bowling coach Shane Bond basically agreeing that Taylor had been screwed over.  Taylor's replacement as skipper is limited overs keeper/batsman (but inconsistent Test player) Brendan McCullum, a former Otago teammate of...Mike Hesson.

During the 50 over matches, McCullum (batting oddly low in the order) seemed to be fighting a lone battle, especially since Guptill was ruled out of the whole series after batting on one leg in the first match.  His explosiveness helped prop up a poor effort from the top order, but never really looked like taking the match from England.

This will be England's first Test action since winning in India, and it is likely that the side will show few changes from that last test.  Cook and Compton look likely to be allowed to continue their fledgling opening partnership, while the new wonder kid Joe Root is expected to continue his education at number 6.  After their "one or another" rivalry during the India tour, I'd expect England to reunite Broad and Finn, alongside Jimmy Anderson (who needs 12 wickets to go to 300 Test scalps) and the ever reliable Graeme Swann as the leading spin threat.

I can see no other result than an England series win, but that doesn't mean attention should be allowed to waiver.  This series, followed by a return visit, is the starter to a meal that includes back to back series against Australia.  There are question marks (some manufactured, some warranted) over several players.  Can Compton cut loose, after showing his grit during the India series? Can Root continue to show his class, and deliver one or more big scores? Can Ian Bell, once again playing with the sword of Damocles over him, return to his ruthless form of 2010-2011 and finally put to bed doubts about his mental toughness? I believe the answer to at least two of these questions is YES.  I'd like to say for all three, but we shall have to see.

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