New Zealand vs England: James Franklin on how Black Caps shed underdog status and Ben Stokes’ newfound craftsmanship

Kishan Vaghela
The Independent
James Franklin insists New Zealand are not underdogs against England: Getty
James Franklin insists New Zealand are not underdogs against England: Getty

James Franklin had never played in England before 2004, and yet come the end of that summer, he had experienced English cricket’s full package.

Club cricket was his first calling point with Rishton in the Lancashire League, but with New Zealand cricket also in the country at the same time he was aware of the possibility of being thrust into the limelight of a Test series.

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Injuries resulted in that opportunity arising in the third Test at Trent Bridge, albeit with the series already lost. A county stint at Gloucestershire followed the subsequent ODI series but for Franklin, playing only his third Test match, the contest in Nottingham represented a second coming.

“Compared to my previous time playing international cricket where I was a little bit in awe of who I was playing against, I was mentally more ready second time around,” recalls Franklin, who has just finished his first season as head coach of Durham.

“It was a little bit of a rebirth for me and it was such an enjoyable occasion.”

It was those two concepts of awe and rebirth that were in play again this summer, with Eoin Morgan bringing about the latter after the 2015 World Cup which caused the former at Lord’s in July against New Zealand.

Yet the Test series between these two sides this winter does not constitute such a prestigious occasion given its absence from the World Test Championship schedule. Unlike the three-match Test series Franklin competed in, the latest instalment of England v New Zealand comes as a two-Test affair at the back end of a five-match T20I series.

“I know a lot of New Zealand players and supporters feel disappointed that they do not get to play many three-match Test series," Franklin reveals.

“I know it is a really tight packed scheduled and there is also the commercial aspect and player welfare to consider, so there are a lot of balls in the air to try and balance out.

“But I ask myself ‘why can’t a two Test match series in New Zealand at the end of November be a three Test match series?’

“It is a bit frustrating that until the culmination of a final at Lord’s not every Test is counting towards it and maybe it should, but I am not sure how the ICC have worked it out as to what counts and what doesn’t.”

Franklin has lauded the batting of Ben Stokes (Getty)
Franklin has lauded the batting of Ben Stokes (Getty)

Yet while the series does not fall under the Test Championship umbrella, the current standings in that particular competition shine a light on the sides’ respective red-ball form coming into the two Tests.

New Zealand sit joint-second with Sri Lanka on 60 points after the contest between the sides in August, while England sit a further four points behind having played three games more after this summer’s Ashes.

And Franklin believes it is as much about mindset as it is calibre of player that has led New Zealand into becoming one of the red-ball game’s most steadfast sides.

“It stems back to Brendon McCullum. He really changed the whole mindset of this current group of cricketers who are now the senior players.

“We had guys who flirted with being world class when I was in the team that on their day would be world beaters but that day in day out lacked a little bit of consistency. But New Zealand cricket over the last five or six years has not only built up some really good resilience and belief but also they have now got some individuals that are truly world class.

Franklin believes Brendon McCullum changed Test cricket in New Zealand (Getty)
Franklin believes Brendon McCullum changed Test cricket in New Zealand (Getty)

“Ross Taylor is a world-class batsman and BJ Watling is as good as any wicketkeeper-batsman in Test match cricket and has shown that consistently over the last couple of years. That pace attack of Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner are, as a collective, right up there with any trio of fast bowlers in the history of Test cricket in terms of their strike rate and average.

“Of course Kane Williamson is massive but there are a lot of other really good operators that can certainly pick up if Kane does not have the series that he would want, and that can happen because these guys aren’t machines, it doesn’t happen all the time.”

New Zealand know as a team that it doesn’t go your way all the time either, even when they hold the underdogs title as they did during the latter stages of the World Cup.

It was a tag that Franklin claimed suited the Black Caps then, but one that they will not be carrying through into this series, even if they are facing a side who the former all-rounder believes could hold all of international cricket’s team accolades in two years time.

“I don’t think New Zealand are underdogs. They are quite comfortable on home soil playing whoever they are up against. I think it is going to be a very level series," Franklin predicts.

Franklin believes Taylor is one of the world class players for the Black Caps (Getty)
Franklin believes Taylor is one of the world class players for the Black Caps (Getty)

“That remark [during the World Cup] was more generalised towards world tournaments where teams like India, Australia and England are generally spoken about as being real contenders and New Zealand always seem not to be up there and that suits them.

“New Zealand will be a little ahead in terms of preparation and I think that might reflect in them not being the underdogs, I think England might slightly be the underdogs.

“Nevertheless most of the ingredients are there for Joe Root. There was a chopping and changing with the batting in the Ashes, which has been there since the likes of Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell moved on, so it’s about giving players enough opportunity to find their place in the order.

“I think the bowling is fine, and of course they have a world-class all-rounder with Ben Stokes.

“There are still a lot of good things there for Root and the England selectors to work with and there is no reason why England cannot be the best Test nation, the best One-Day nation and maybe in a year’s time the best T20 nation in the world. That is certainly achievable.”

Stokes has refined his batting in recent years (PA)
Stokes has refined his batting in recent years (PA)

It was Stokes’ magnificent performance at Lord’s that has put England a third of the way to an unprecedented triumph in all three formats.

The all-rounder was rather comically announced as a candidate for New Zealander of the Year award after his heroics and is now the overwhelming favourite to claim the BBC Sports Personality Award, but it is the increasing value to England’s batting lineup that his county coach believes is English cricket’s greatest reward.

“I think we are perhaps seeing just a little bit over the last year that his batting is just starting to take over," Franklin claims.

“It is demanding being an all-rounder, particularly for the way that he plays because he gives absolutely everything every time he steps across the rope, so I think now maybe the realisation is for him is that his real impact is with the bat, particularly in Test cricket.

“We saw through the Ashes and the World Cup how much of an important batsman he is for England. He is playing some seriously mature, educated innings. It is not just all crash bang wallop, which maybe some people may have put with Ben Stokes maybe four or five years ago. Now we see real craftsmanship.

“I am sure he has still got the power, but the way that he is constructing his innings now is as good as anyone. I think maybe over the next year or two we will start to see his batting come through and see him become more of a number five batsman who bowls as an impact, breakthrough bowler.”

The England all-rounder did not play a huge part in Franklin’s first season at Durham, in what the Kiwi describes as an “exciting and challenging” summer developing the side.

So while Franklin’s testing objective is to further develop the next generation of England stars at the county, England’s established order face an equally stern challenge in attempting to assert their dominance abroad this winter.

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