Winter marathon enters final stretch | Cricket Bats | England

England cricketers dispersed in various directions from Christchurch on Sunday. A few flew back home, a group headed for Dubai and the PSL and for some this tour goes on. Those who are also in the Test squad made the short 90-minute hop north to Hamilton, the base for preparations over the next week as white ball is replaced by pink and red.

The nine Test-only players arrived in Hamilton a couple of days ago and have so far been shaking off jetlag in a variety of ways, including a spot of 10-pin bowling and a trip to Raglan beach about 45km away. Preparations for the two-Test series, which includes the first day-night Test in New Zealand at Eden Park, will go up a level on Monday ahead of four days of warm-up action against New Zealand XIs at Seddon Park starting Wednesday.

Those matches will be split into two days with the pink ball using day-night conditions followed by two days with the red ball. Two New Zealand XI squads have been named, featuring those who specialise in the red-ball (such as opener Jeet Ravel), those looking to adjust after three months of white-ball cricket (Henry Nicholls, Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner) and a collection of players hoping to push the selectors (Seth Rance, George Worker, Doug Bracewell). Given the nature of most warm-up matches these days, it could very quickly turn into a merry-go-round of players for both sides.

New Zealand are unlikely to spring many surprises in their Test squad – they won the two Tests against West Indies, which feel like a lifetime ago at the start of the season, convincingly and have a tried and tested balance at home. For England, coming off the back of the 4-0 Ashes defeat, there are significantly more issues to tackle. Given the two-Test series is a 50-50 split between the new and traditional it could yet require two different approaches.

“We’d have liked to have gone better in the Ashes but we will try to take whatever positives we can out of that series and try to put them right in this series,” Chris Woakes said. “We are going into a pink-ball Test which we all haven’t played that much of. It’s not a step into the unknown but things are happening that you don’t expect. It’s only two matches – do you go all out and attack and try to win the first game and make sure you can’t lose the series, or play it as it comes?”

Ben Stokes‘ return opens up a few options they could take after the problems they faced in Australia. He is a high-class batsman and very fine fourth quick. Not unexpectedly, England’s balance was off in the Ashes, a problem exacerbated by the struggles of fellow allrounders Woakes and Moeen Ali. If they had both played at the top of their games it’s just possible England could have competed: instead Moeen averaged 19.88 with the bat and 115 with the ball, Woakes 16.28 and 49.50.

Woakes did not complete the series, ruled out by injury in Sydney, but though linking performance in one format to another is fraught with danger, he has since had a stellar time in one-day cricket, capped with the Man of the Series award in New Zealand. Moeen, meanwhile, has bowled nicely although the batting has been less convincing.

“The most adventurous route for the Test side to take would be to use Stokes at No. 5. The batsman to make way under this scenario would be Vince”

“I feel I am bowling pretty well, and that will help me swap formats,” Woakes said. “As a modern player you should be used to jumping formats, there shouldn’t be too many excuses. Generally it’s pretty similar for a bowler, as a batsman you might have to put a few shots away, but as a bowler I am in good rhythm and hopefully the transition is smooth.”

It is likely that both Woakes and Moeen will feature in the Test series, meaning England will return to the allrounder-heavy option. But could Joe Root and Trevor Bayliss take the chance to mix things up? England have had a horrid run away from home since the South Africa tour in 2015-16: nine defeats, two draws and just one win.

England’s Test cricket, especially overseas, needs a shot in the arm.

The most adventurous route to take would be to use Stokes at No. 5, although that could be seen as a step too far on his return to the format. It is a position Bayliss has previously said he could see Stokes taking up, perhaps bowling a little less as a result. The batsman to make way under this scenario would be James Vince, who survived the axe after an unconvincing Ashes where for every cover drive there was an outside edge not far away.

A new No. 3 would be needed. Root would be the obvious choice – despite his reluctance – although it could be Dawid Malan after his stellar Ashes. One by-product of Stokes replacing Vince, would be a left-handed heavy top order but, in the short term, New Zealand do not have an offspinner to replicate Nathan Lyon’s guile.

This attacking-minded selection would open the door for legspinner Mason Crane to be retained. A return of 1 for 193 on debut in Sydney, followed by a chastening time on the Lions tour of West Indies where he was out-bowled but also under-bowled, does not scream for selection. But if he isn’t in consideration for selection why is he on the tour? In this scenario the attack can be four quicks and two spinners – Crane could be a luxury item, perhaps useful with the pink ball under lights when picking variations may be trickier.

This is unlikely to be the route taken by England. In reality, Stokes will probably bat at No. 6, Vince will be retained at first drop, Moeen will be the spinner and Woakes will support James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Mark Wood and Craig Overton are the other two quicks in the squad. Wood had an ankle niggle during the ODIs but came through the last three games; Overton impressed in the Ashes before suffering a fractured rib.

This is the final leg of a long overseas spell for England (although only Bayliss has done it all) and a two-Test series as autumn rolls around in New Zealand feels a little tokenistic, but there are enough subplots to keep things interesting. Not least whether England can get back to winning ways abroad.


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