England have not yet fully emerged from the team environment previously known as the bubble but the start of a bumper international summer nevertheless feels like a fresh page being turned. After a previous chapter spent befuddled by the spin of Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel on India’s baked soil, they return to home comforts and the familiarity of pace on the ball.
The marketing folk would probably describe it as a soft launch, with new players being explored and spectators returning in reduced numbers. But the two-match series against New Zealand – one of cricket’s friendliest rivalries – still provides plenty of the good stuff that Test cricket lovers feast upon and administrators should keep in mind the next time they talk down the format’s future.
Granted the series has been laid on as a goodwill gesture for the broadcasters and the grounds and does not form part of the World Test Championship. But neither did the 2,000-plus Tests staged before it began in 2019. We still have two enticing sides on show, while the return to Lord’s – scene of a belting Test between the two countries in 2015 – and then Edgbaston offers a much-needed sense of normality returning after a season spent schlepping between the bubbles at the Rose Bowl and Old Trafford and back again.
New Zealand are the far more settled team and the global final against India would cap their enviable rise under Kane Williamson. England, meanwhile, are actively broadening their player pool and begin a new regime with Chris Silverwood, now head coach and sole selector. His support staff has been finalised after a year of temporary roles and the Ashes tour has, unashamedly, been pinned on the wall as the long-term goal.
Ed Smith’s de-blazering in April has simplified the decision-making process, smoothing out the lines between squad and first-team selection that had become blurred at times (and erupted on occasion when Stuart Broad found himself mixing the drinks). His work lives on, however, with Wednesday’s two possible debutants, James Bracey and Ollie Robinson, detected by his radar and now set to earn their chance.
Bracey, who will be the first Test player from Gloucestershire since Jon Lewis in 2006, sees his future as a top-order batsman but an unfortunate slip in the dressing room by Ben Foakes means the left-hander starts out behind the stumps. After a year learning how international cricket operates from the wings, it will be fascinating to see how this 24-year-old fares on centre stage. They will be bursting with pride at Winterbourne Cricket Club in Bristol.
The likelihood is that Bracey will slot in at No 7 and above him sits a lineup that is shorn of Ben Stokes and, bar Joe Root and perhaps Dom Sibley, has individuals jostling for position as they look to fulfil Silverwood’s orders for 400-plus totals by hook or by crook. Only one Englishman has made his Test debut since Root in late 2012 and averaged more than 40 and though he is in the squad Haseeb Hameed’s recall after a rebirth at Nottinghamshire is initially as cover.
Personal stats were damaged during the 3-1 defeat in India – a tour that with the rotation policy felt more like an obligation fulfilled rather than a challenge fully attempted – and so Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence will want to get the graph moving upwards again. Do so against a high-class Kiwi attack, one that should enjoy the switch from Kookaburra ball to Dukes, and memories of Rishabh Pant chuckling away behind the stumps after their various demises will soon start to melt away.
If Bracey has been identified on potential and temperament then there is a case to say any selector would have done well to overlook Robinson. Sussex were in Division Two before the rejig of the past two seasons but with a notably high release point from a 6ft 5in frame, synapses that crackle with plans and 195 first-class wickets at an average of 17 over the past four seasons, the 27-year-old was becoming impossible to ignore.
So, too, Craig Overton, who Lewis, now the England bowling coach, fancies has been driven by an early summer rivalry with Robinson, although the Somerset man may have to wait his turn. England have been toying with an all-seam attack – Root and Lawrence providing the spin options – but if Jack Leach does make way it may be for the more explosive pace of Mark Wood or Olly Stone. Broad, stepping up as vice-captain, and Jimmy Anderson are unlikely to be separated.
Their places in the pecking order differ but the decision to rest Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes after the Indian Premier League still means that along with injuries to Stokes and Jofra Archer England are experimenting a touch. Nevertheless, as Anderson pointed out as he prepares for a record-equalling 161st cap, the target of a winning start to a summer that sees India follow in August remains a non-negotiable.
New Zealand’s final decisions were at opener – the uncapped Devon Conway is set to make his debut – and the all-rounder berth with Mitch Santner the spin option. Their record away from home is a remaining question, while England’s players also have up to eight rounds of County Championship cricket behind them, compared to a two-day intra-squad warm-up for the visitors in Southampton.
It is this back and forth of experience versus home conditions versus preparation that makes the alluring series tricky to call. Come the end, when the stories of the teams will have advanced further and the sound of applause will have been for real once more, those of us looking on should be richer for it.