The first hint of autumn hit with the blast of a leaf-blower. After weeks of blissful weather the wind howled in and curtains of drizzle blew across University Oval. Gone were the shorts and singlets of England practices during the last month and out, instead, came the tracksuits and the occasional woolly hat. It was just a reminder that the volatility of the weather is no great respecter of Test cricket.
There are high hopes of a decent crowd for Wednesday's match – which starts at 9.30pm GMT – in relative terms, of course. Dunedin is only New Zealand's seventh-largest city, with a population of around 118,000 (13,000 fewer than Cambridge, for example although similarly boosted by its university population: currently it is freshers' week) and it is one steeped foremost in rugby. This was where touring sides, cricket and rugby, were sent to the notorious Carisbrook, the House of Pain, to be subjected at times to inhospitable cold and bleakness.
No longer. Just over from University Oval is the largest permanently roofed grass arena in the world, while the Oval itself is a lovely parkland ground, surrounded by tall trees. With temporary seating, the capacity is around 5,500, and already getting on for 4,000 tickets have been sold. Those who enjoy the ambience of a county's festival ground will appreciate the atmosphere that can be generated by numbers small by stadium standards.
This will be the fifth Test match to be played here, the first of them being against Bangladesh in 2008. Two were badly affected by rain and ended in draws with the last, against South Africa, well poised going into the final day.
Included in the five is a match, against Pakistan and won by New Zealand, considered a classic. If the talk is of attempting to get a bland, slow, low surface to kick off the series, then the reality seems to be what might be suggested by the tree-lined environment and situation on low-lying reclaimed land.
At the start of last winter Steve Finn played four first-class matches for Otago, one of them – unsuccessfully (24–5–68–0) – at University Oval where he remembers the pitch as being less grassy than the one he saw here two days before the match (although it was under covers later). The ball tends to swing and seam and we could have an excellent balance between bat and ball.
England very much have a monkey to remove from their collective backs.St George's Park in Port Elizabeth may not seem to carry any special significance but more than eight years ago, inspired chiefly by the batting of Andrew Strauss, England beat South Africa in the first Test and, a trip to Bangladesh aside, they have not won the opening match of any of the dozen series they have played abroad since.
Five years ago England played so abysmally in Hamilton, and New Zealand so well, that not only did they lose (which did at least make for a terrific series) but it was the start of a whole period of upheaval in English cricket that was to culminate a year on in a totally new regime of Strauss and Andy Flower. So England really would like to hit the ground running and take control of a series that will see them offered more helpful pacy bowling conditions in Wellington and Auckland.
Experience alone is sufficient to tell them not to underestimate New Zealand no matter the internal struggles within the home team, management and administration, though England may have been encouraged when the seamer Doug Bracewell was ruled out with a gashed foot, with some reports suggesting he suffered the injury at a party at his Napier home over the weekend. Ian Butler has been training with the team as cover for Bracewell.
The defeat in Queenstown at the hands of New Zealand A was salutary, and perhaps even timely, offering the sort of competitive workout that is infinitely preferable to running roughshod over substandard opposition which achieves little and says less about form.
Before that match, given that the intensive scheduling of the winter's cricket means it was the only warm-up, England selected what must be the main body of the team, resting only Jimmy Anderson and Finn, who will provide the new-ball spearhead.
It means that the batting will remain the same as it was against India for the final Test in Nagpur, faith being retained in the capacity of Nick Compton to negotiate the moving ball on sappy pitches perhaps, something more familiar to him than the turners of the subcontinent.
Given the dreadful time that Graham Onions had of it in Queenstown, it seems certain that Stuart Broad will return to the side rather than Chris Woakes making his debut, although the latter did bowl increasingly well in the match. A look at the pitch, forecast, surroundings and match history would be sufficient to jettison all ideas of two spinners, despite rumours that pitches here have turned.
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image: © Steve Hodgson