England's tour proper begins in Eden Park on Saturday evening, with the first of three Twenty20 games to be followed by those in Hamilton and Wellington's anonymous "Cake Tin". Then come a trio of one-day internationals in Hamilton once more, Napier, and in Eden Park again. The three-Test series will be in Dunedin, the Basin Reserve in Wellington, and Eden Park yet again. If this final venue is a disappointment given the triumphant scheduling of England's last Test series here, then at least there is a good balance to the cricket to be played.
It is almost 18 months since the All Black captain, Richie McCaw, lifted the Rugby World Cup and Eden Park was handed back to cricket for the summer. It has brought changes, though. Playing international cricket on rugby grounds, as has happened in New Zealand not just in Auckland, but Christchurch, Wellington, Dunedin and Napier, can bring its problems in terms of dimension, but none of these had the idiosyncrasy of Eden Park, where a rectangular field contained a pitch skewed from corner to corner. There were some interesting angles for the batsmen to work with and for bowlers to defend.
Now, with the redevelopment of the ground for rugby, the opportunity has been taken to square the pitch so that it is set at right angles to the length of the rugby pitch, effectively across the halfway line. It is said that the boundaries are set at 60 yards from the centre of the pitch, which is short anyway, but this means that the distance from the creases to the nearest boundary is 50 yards. It won't take much of an uppercut or Dilscoop to clear that behind the wicket, nor too much of belt to carry it for six over the bowler.
Since the Rugby World Cup, there have been two T20 matches, scarcely enough for a proper assessment of the effect, with Zimbabwe making 158 and losing and South Africa making 165 and winning. The potential for higher scoring would seem to be there. At the least there is one more thing for the captains to factor in.
There was certainly some slight experimenting, with Jonny Bairstow moved up the order in the second match, presumably to offer the opportunity to have a look at him, and Jos Buttler given the gloves (much to Bairstow's immediate pre-match surprise, it transpired). Chris Woakes bowled well in one match and missed the second; Steve Finn played what there was of the abandoned opening game on Monday (and suffered), and the second in which he also struggled; Jade Dernbach played both and was as profligate as ever. Buttler and Eoin Morgan excelled with the bat, and Michael Lumb and Luke Wright also made some runs.
By the time they left Whangarei, there was evidence that the bulk of the side had been settled on, with Lumb, Alex Hales, Wright, Morgan, Buttler and Bairstow in the top six with possibly Samit Patel, who bowled excellently in the second warm-up, as a floating batsman. Bowling looks certain to be done by Stuart Broad and James Tredwell, and probably Woakes, with back-up from Wright and Patel.
This leaves a conundrum. When the teams last met, in Pallekele, during the World T20, England's win was in no small part down to Finn's pace and bounce taking three for 16. So far, though, he has looked uncertain of the length or line to bowl, especially to left-handers – too short generally – who have carved him through the offside freely. Against this, there is a belief that Dernbach has something different to offer. But it may well be that patience is running out with a bowler who has yet to find a balance between doing the simple things well and reverting to others altogether more exotic. There comes a point where enough is enough, where he makes bowling a more complicated operation than it really is.
It may just be, though, that the short boundaries, allied to Finn's pace, may count against Finn: pace off the ball may be one way to go in which case Dernbach's variations, derided as they are in some quarters, may just be the best option.
New Zealand will be without the fast bowler Ian Butler and the all-rounder Grant Elliott because of injury. James Neesham has been called up.
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