With the conclusion of the ODI series between England and New Zealand, both teams are gearing up for the three Tests that begin on the 6th of March in Dunedin. It is a series that England should comfortably win indeed, I feel that if England are to struggle against their opponent these will be failings based on their own overconfidence.
New Zealand have a long and proud history in International cricket. They have produced some of the greatest cricketers the world has ever seen – but in recent years their decline has increased from a slip to a slide. If there is any team who I wish to see rise to the summit as much as I desire it of England it is New Zealand. Having been to the country and seen their obvious love of sport, I know they want it and deserve it. But it will not happen for a long time until they stop the rot. The last time they won a Test series against a team other than Bangladesh or Zimbabwe (two separate one Test series) was in 2005/6 against the West Indies, the last of 3 consecutive victories.
The team that New Zealand had over six years ago was a genuinely good team – names like Stephen Fleming, Lou Vincent and Shane Bond were in the team and they competed on a regular basis. It has been a long time since those players were Blackcaps players and they are sorely missed.
During the 50 over series against England there were glimpses of New Zealand’s talent and promise. Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum are world class players that would probably walk into most Test teams around at the moment, barring South Africa. Yet there was a routine absence of fight and enthusiasm for the battle – which was evidenced in the final match.
The New Zealand batsmen wilted under the attack from Finn and Anderson and were it not for McCullum’s 79 they would have struggled to make 125. England victory in the ODI series was the first time they have beaten New Zealand in a bilateral One Day series since 1994 – a mark of how undercooked their opponents are.
The most frustrating aspect of this, for them and their supporters, is the continuing performances that, on first viewing, indicate improvement. But if one is to look beyond the result – such as the ODI series that they beat South Africa in at the beginning of the year – the true story comes out. South Africa put out a 2nd XI, with players such as Quinton de Kock, Colin Ingram, Farhaan Behardien, David Miller, Ryan McLaren, Aaron Phangiso and Lonwabo Tsotsobe in the team.
The environment of failure pervades this New Zealand team, no matter what they do to try and shake it off. It’s a pernicious attribute that eats away at the self confidence and the mental integrity of the team and was one of the reasons behind the departure of Ross Taylor as captain last year. The pressure of captaining a ship that has already sunk is crippling and the loss of the captain as well as the best batsman in the team is a big one. However, much like England with Kevin Pietersen, it seems as if he has been reintegrated into his former surroundings successfully during the ODI series. Yet New Zealand will do well to not force another evacuation.
As for England – it’s a case of keeping their heads down and working hard. As an England fan, I would like to imagine that the rhetoric they pump out in press conferences (“we’re focusing on our own game”, etc) is actually true. There is no doubt that they took the loss against South Africa last summer to heart and they have worked hard to build themselves back up again. Beating India in India is a huge achievement, but that is in the past now. Winning in New Zealand is the next challenge and a loss of concentration against the Kiwis would be unforgivable, particularly in a year with two series against a set of Antipodeans that they really do not want to lose to.
If the form book is anything to go by, England should beat New Zealand handsomely. The last time England lost to New Zealand in a Test match was in March 2008 – but New Zealand’s slide began long before then. And without an overhaul and a change in fortunes, it is a demise that shows no sign of abating.