England, NZ begin test series with bigger priorities ahead


Staying in the present might be easier said than done for England and New Zealand in their two-match test series starting Wednesday.

For the New Zealanders, priority No. 1 this international summer is the inaugural World Test Championship final, which sees them taking on India in the southern English city of Southampton from June 18-22 — four days after the England series concludes.

Indeed, that final is the reason they are over in the U.K., with the test series against England having been added on relatively late for financial reasons amid the pandemic as much as anything else.

For the English, there’s the more high-profile test series against India — containing five matches — starting in August before an Ashes series Down Under from December.

The fact that England is without a slew of leading players, including Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, only adds to the sense of the series being something of a warm-up ahead of bigger things to come.

Of course, many of the players involved will take a different view.

Take wicketkeeper-batsman James Bracey, for example, who will make his debut for England following an injury to Ben Foakes and while another wicketkeeper in Jos Buttler is absent after his recent involvement in the Indian Premier League.

Or Jimmy Anderson, England’s enduring fast bowler who, if selected for the first test at Lord’s, will tie Alastair Cook’s record of representing the country in most tests (161).

As for New Zealand, the big prize is clearly the WTC but winning a test series in England is never anything to be scoffed at. What better preparation for the one-off India test than playing two competitive five-day matches in English conditions, in particular the pitches and the Dukes ball?

Unless, of course, a key player like captain Kane Williamson gets injured.

And then there’s the factor of the Black Caps being back at Lord’s for the first time since their agonizing loss there to England in the World Cup final in July 2019. It’s a different format, and very different stakes, but the victory would still be sweet — especially given New Zealand has only won one test at Lord’s, in 1999.

“It’s a different side and there’s been some time since that day,” Williamson said in a video call on Tuesday, when he simply referred to the 2019 final as a “moment in time.”

“The focus is different. There’s certainly no thought of it as owing anyone anything.”

Devon Conway should make his test debut for New Zealand, opening the batting with Tom Latham. Seamer Trent Boult is unavailable for selection — likely for either test — after returning to New Zealand following the suspension of the IPL.

England will be picking a depleted team. Aside from injuries to Stokes (broken finger), Archer (elbow) and Foakes (hamstring), Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali will not feature after being given an extended period of rest following the IPL.

That leaves captain Joe Root without a specialist allrounder, something he described as one of the biggest challenges of this series.

Root confirmed Tuesday that Bracey will make his debut, but didn’t give any other clues about the lineup except for saying Stuart Broad has a “better chance” of playing in both tests after he was selected Tuesday as vice captain.

For Root, the road to the Ashes begins with “laying down a marker” this summer against the top two teams in the test rankings.

“There’s going to be constant conversations about Australia throughout this summer. There’s no getting away from that. It is of utmost importance, absolutely,” Root said.

“How we are best going to prepare ourselves for that is by performing well in these seven test matches. You talk about readying a side, winning seven test matches and going to Australia is the best way to do that. Filling a side with confidence and implementing a game plan.”

The capacity for the Lord’s test will be limited to 25%, with England gradually coming out of coronavirus restrictions. The home of cricket hasn’t staged an international game since an Ashes test between England and Australia in 2019.

The second test at Edgbaston in Birmingham will welcome 18,000 fans each day — 70% capacity — because it has been selected as the first of the British government’s latest pilot events for the reopening of mass participation occasions.

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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