If you can avert your gaze from Johannesburg for one moment. New Zealand have five days ahead of them that, whatever the players say, will define their season. Win or draw, and they will secure just a fourth series win over England. Lose, and while 1-1 would be far from a failure, it would be seen as a missed opportunity to gain a significant prize.
England are desperately trying to have something tangible to take home from the Test format: their six matches since November have included three innings defeats, a 10-wicket loss and being bowled out for 58. Throughout that time, they have been outdone by seam, swing, pace and spin while they – barring James Anderson with the first two – have produced very little of it themselves.
Nothing they have tried away from home over the last 18 months has worked and now they have opted to drop two senior players in Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes, with a possible debut for Somerset left-arm spinner Jack Leach. Whether it helps them combat the New Zealand pace attack, particularly the contrasting left-arm skills of Trent Boult and Neil Wagner, or take 20 wickets remains to be seen.
New Zealand have an extra incentive, although not one that is needed or one the players will be fussed about. If they win the series 2-0, and the South Africa-Australia series finishes 2-1 or 3-1 to the home side, New Zealand will move above Australia into third place in the Test rankings. Australia, clearly, have bigger issues on their plate, but for New Zealand, it would be a grand way to finish the season.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
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In the spotlight
Can they do it again? New Zealand’s three-pronged pace attack is as good as any in the world in their own conditions. They shared 17 wickets at Eden Park, with just Tim Southee and Trent Boult needed to blow away England’s first innings. Conditions at Hagley Oval should suit them, with a reasonably grassed pitch, a surface that generally provides bounce, and the chance of some autumnal cloud cover. But, as they showed in Auckland, they can do it under bright sunshine as well.
Before this series Alastair Cook spoke of the dark times he experienced in the Ashes and how the Melbourne double-century was important. However, that innings continues to look an anomaly, following twin failures in Auckland, even if the second was an edge down the leg side. From his double hundred against West Indies to now, he has made 487 in two innings, and just 200 in the other 14 in the same period. It really is feast or famine. England would love a double this week, but would happily take a smaller century, or, probably, a base-laying 80.
Ish Sodhi for the injured Todd Astle was confirmed as the one change for New Zealand.
New Zealand 1 Jeet Raval, 2 Tom Latham, 3 Kane Williamson (cap), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Henry Nicholls, 6 BJ Watling (wk), 7 Colin de Grandhomme, 8 Ish Sodhi, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Neil Wagner, 11 Trent Boult
Moeen has been dropped for the first time in his career, while Woakes has paid the price for a wicketless display in Auckland as England confirmed a 12-man squad on the eve of the match. James Vince, Mark Wood and Jack Leach are all named, meaning Leach is in line for a debut should England want a specialist spinner although they could opt for an all-pace attack. Ben Stokes did not bowl at nets on Thursday so would appear unlikely to be an option with the ball. Leaving out Vince and playing Craig Overton at No. 7 would be a lengthy lower order.
England (possible) 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Mark Stoneman, 3 James Vince, 4 Joe Root, 5 Dawid Malan, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Craig Overton/Jack Leach, 9 Mark Wood, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
Pitch and conditions
Four Tests and four results at Hagley Oval, with the pitch producing a good contest between bat and ball, unless you are a spinner – they have very much played a supporting role. Late summer appears set to hang on with just a few showers currently forecast for Saturday. Bad light, however, could be an issue as the clocks go back on Sunday. Play will start half an hour earlier to reflect that.
Stats and trivia
In four Tests at Hagley Oval, New Zealand have bowled just 52 overs of spin and 38 of those came in one innings, by Mark Craig against Sri Lanka
Neil Wagner needs three wickets to reach 150 in Test cricket
If England fail to level the series they will set a new record of winless matches away from home (13).
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to win going in to other conditions, but what was so disappointing in Auckland was that it wasn’t dissimilar to playing in England. As a batting group, it wasn’t good enough because we’ve had plenty of experience in those conditions. We’re trying to change the way we go about things to find the best way for us to get to 400 and take 20 wickets.”
“Think it’s a fairly even playing field. If we look back to the last game, it was nice to come out on the right side, but we know this English team was very well-balanced and talented side. They certainly showed that in the second half of the last game. Coming into tomorrow, I’m sure it will be a close game.”
Kane Williamson plays down the favourites tag