All roads lead to the Ashes. Anticipation, always the most significant element in these matters, is at fever pitch. There it will remain, with a mopped brow or two, until Australia roll up at Trent Bridge in July, and may well continue until the last of 10 successive Tests between the oldest international combatants in Sydney next January.
But the journey to all this had to begin somewhere, and so it did yesterday at the County Ground in Derby where brows went resolutely unmopped. It was a reminder, if it were needed, that in this great summer extravaganza of cricket the New Zealanders are also very much with us.
They will play two Test matches and three one-day internationals, bizarrely to be followed weeks later by two Twenty20s. Much too easily overlooked as it is, it would be folly to underestimate these tourists. They have been invited as the curtain-raiser, England should be wary of them stealing the limelight.
Naturally, England could lose to New Zealand, go on to defeat Australia in the home and away series, and all would be forgiven. Australia are part of the English cricketing psyche in a way that no other team has been or will be. Trouble is, of course, that if New Zealand were to win, something that would have been unthinkable at the start of the year, the effect on England’s belief might be terminally debilitating.
Brendon McCullum, New Zealand’s affable, accomplished captain, said yesterday with a knowing grin when it was put to him that England had to play Australia this summer: “Have they? We can only focus on what we’ve got in front of us.
“For us, if we can topple England at home we will hold that very fondly for a very long time. What happens later on in the year is of little relevance to us. Our task is these two Test matches and finishing off what is I guess a five-match Test series if you add the three from back home.”
New Zealand should have won that home series two months ago. They know it, England know it, the world knows it. Having dominated the first and last matches, they were denied by staunch England rearguard actions, which were as necessary as they were unexpected before the start of the series.
Throughout, England claimed that they did not take New Zealand lightly, but there was a disturbing inability to think on their feet which was compounded by McCullum’s constantly innovative, aggressive leadership. New Zealand went into that series immediately after being marmalised by South Africa, the best side in the world, and with controversy still rife about the sacking of Ross Taylor from the captaincy and his replacement by McCullum. Their progress was remarkable.
“I don’t think England underestimated us. They probably didn’t expect us to play as well as we did,” said McCullum, who has given his side an immediate fillip by arriving earlier than expected from his duties in the Indian Premier League.
“Were they complacent? I don’t think so. I like to think we put them under a lot of pressure to show some weaknesses in their line-up. I think that had a two-fold effect. It gave us confidence and probably ate away a little bit at the confidence they had when they arrived on our shores.
“Yeah, I thought we deserved to win, but it was one of those things, a gripping series. From where we were at the start of that series, especially after a tough South African tour, to where we sat at the end, I looked around the changing room and guys were absolutely heartbroken by not getting across the line, but there was also an immense amount of pride that we were able to play with the characteristics and, I guess, the personality that we showed on the field too.
“I was incredibly proud of the guys and this tour is a chance for us to finish the job.”
New Zealand have lost both their last two Test series here by large margins – 3-0 in 2004, 2-0 in 2008 – and it would be doing this summer of all summers a huge favour if they do offer stronger competition. It would be a boon for the health of Test cricket, which needs all the help it can get wherever it comes from, but it would ensure that cricket itself does not waste this rare opportunity to have the field more or less to itself.
A great South Africa team was unfortunately but understandably overshadowed last summer by the London Olympic Games. This year there are no such distractions at home, the usual summer offerings and a British Lions rugby union tour to Australia apart, and no major football tournament impinging on these delights.
Cricket offers the Champions Trophy, a neat, quick one-day tournament involving the world’s best teams to be played over 18 days in June, and that is followed by the Ashes. But it is New Zealand who start things off, who can grab the attention.
They adapted readily yesterday against one of Derbyshire’s less imposing attacks, which at no point put anyone in mind of Les Jackson or Mike Hendrick of long ago. But there were wickets for the left-arm fast bowler, Mark Footitt, who at 27 has not quite developed the way it was expected or hoped when he was 18. He again demonstrated the value of left-arm seam bowlers to right- handed batsman. How England would like one. Kane Williamson batted pleasantly, Dean Brownlie acquisitively, B-J Watling determinedly. After declaring at 289 for 5, the tourists looked ready for the fray.
How the summer will unfold
England v New Zealand
16-20 May: First Test, Lord’s
24-28 May: Second Test, Headingley
31 May: First ODI, Lord’s
2 June: Second ODI, Rose Bowl
5 June: Third ODI, Trent Bridge
25 June: First Twenty20, The Oval
27 June: Second T20, The Oval
8 June: England v Australia, Edgbaston
13 June: England v Sri Lanka, The Oval
16 June: England v New Zealand, Cardiff
23 June: Final, Edgbaston
England v Australia
10-14 July: First Test, Trent Bridge
18-22 July: Second Test, Lord’s
1-5 Aug: Third Test, Old Trafford
9-13 Aug: Fourth Test, Chester-le-Street
21-15 Aug: Fifth Test, The Oval
29 Aug: First T20, Rose Bowl
31 Aug: Second T20, Chester-le-Street
6 Sept: First ODI, Headingley
8 Sept: Second ODI, Old Trafford
11 Sept: Third ODI, Edgbaston
14 Sept: Fourth ODI, Cardiff
16 Sept: Fifth ODI, Rose Bowl