Rob Key column: Fascinating England clash as experienced New Zealand approach final frontier

·3-min read
 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

New Zealand are in England to prove they are the best team in the world.

First they face their hosts, then India in the final of the World Test Championship, which really takes the typical English view of New Zealand’s cricketers — that they are plucky underdogs punching above their weight — to the extreme.

There are a few simple facts that make it extraordinary how good New Zealand have become in all formats (don’t forget that alongside being brilliant in Tests they have reached the last two World Cup finals). Their population is under five million and they are a nation famously obsessed with rugby. England has four times as many professional cricketers as New Zealand. They are an anomaly of global sport.

New Zealand are masters of cutting their cloth. English cricket is a big business, with a vast broadcast deal underpinning the game’s finances. We have so many professionals that if someone doesn’t perform at international level, we are able to simply take the lazy option and look at who is next. We don’t necessarily have to make our players better.

New Zealand have to make do with what they have, which forces them to eke out every bit from their players, helping them improve and crack the top level. They also have a very happy knack of producing players who take to international cricket immediately. They churn out players with far more limited resources.

This is the most complete team in New Zealand’s history. Around half of them played in their last series against England, which was as long ago as 2015. That shows how settled their side has been.

It is a shame that New Zealand have been here so rarely and that their series against England are so short, because the one in 2015 was excellent. They have beaten England 1-0 at home twice since then.

With so many players in their prime (and BJ Watling hanging up his gloves after the tour), this trip represents something of a final frontier for the group.

I feel this is especially true of their skipper, Kane Williamson. He is top of the Test batting rankings and an incredible player. He scored a century in that epic Lord’s Test six years ago, but averages only 31 in England. The sample size is pretty small, but he averages 61 in Australasia, 51 in Africa, 51 in the Caribbean and 46 in Asia.

He also averages just 21 against Jimmy Anderson, which is a battle that looks likely to shape the series: England’s greatest bowler against New Zealand’s greatest batsman.

Anderson will lead a strong English attack, providing a fierce examination of New Zealand’s batters. While there is lateral movement in New Zealand, it tends not to be as extreme, because of the Kookaburra ball and some drop-in pitches. Lord’s has been tricky for batting this season — and largely has been since they improved the drainage. I expect it will be green on top and dry underneath.

While his record here is modest, Williamson is perfectly set up to thrive in England. I feel he lines up bowling better than anyone else in Test cricket and has the purest technique of this generation of big guns. Like a number of his players, Williamson hasn’t played much Test cricket in England, but he has played county cricket and done well. The Black Caps are coming prepared.

They are a team full of understated guys with simple techniques who fly under the radar until they smash you in the face. I am looking forward to watching Kyle Jamieson as part of an attack that looks ready-made for English conditions.

England look a vulnerable side, too. They are missing players through injury and others are resting, which leaves Joe Root as their only experienced batter. How often have they had six of their top seven with under 25 Tests to their names? We don’t know quite how the XI will look, but whoever takes the field first has a mighty challenge ahead.

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