All set for the Test end of the tour
Posted in England in New Zealand 2008
Well, some might say the business end of proceedings is just about to get underway. Michael Vaughan has returned to the fold seemingly refreshed after a christmas and new year at home, and with Steve Harmison, Ryan Sidebottom and Paul Collingwood all recovering from nagging injuries, England will be going into the first Test with their first-choice XI.
Amongst that number will be Andrew Strauss, batting at number three, revitalised after his century in Dunedin and his absence from the Sri Lankan tour. The pressure will be on him for instant results, but he seems a more relaxed character than the one who left English screens at the end of last summer.
There is also a debutant in the side, with Tim Ambrose becoming the seventh wicketkeeper to don the gloves since Alec Stewart's retirement. He is an unflappable character, down to earth and mentally tough. He'll need all those assets to succeed at this level, and by all accounts his glovework is up there with the very best in domestic cricket. The ultimate challenge will of course be the amount of runs he accrues whilst dropping nothing that comes his way, and if he can transfer his domestic form to Test level England may well have found an answer to that maddening of riddles. He certainly looks the part - you wouldn't get run over in those gloves.
Ambrose will be straight into the action as Kiwi skipper Daniel Vettori has won the toss and decided to bat on what is reportedly a dry track. New Zealand have also employed two spinners with that very scenario in mind. Vaughan has already expressed the need for a quick start on this first day, and he'll be hoping that early wickets shake the unreliable (in Test cricket anyway) Kiwi line-up.
One man who won't feature in either line-up is England's security advisor, known to me only as 'Reg'. As part of a tour ritual, he was padded up and sent into the nets to survive six deliveries. He drew a particularly delighted Ryan Sidebottom out of the hat, and Sid marked out his long run. Six balls later, there was jubilation amongst the squad as Reg survived the over with consumate ease, Sidebottom with only one huge shout for lbw (replays confirmed Reg was outside the line). "Nah problem..." he muttered in his Aussie drawl, large whiskers twitching. You'll be able to see this titanic battler on ECBtv later this week.
Finally, Phil Mustard was on the receiving end of a 'series of unfortunate incidents' as a Kevin Pietersen bludgeon pinballed it's way into the next net, cracked poor Mustard on the nose, sent him spiralling off of the bowling machine and into the back of a car heading for hospital. He reportedly had his nose straightened in surgery today, and Durham team-mate Steve Harmison was heard to comment that "he could have done with it hitting him a bit lower." No idea what he meant there...