Moose sent down

I’m a day or two after the party on this (see the end of the last post re: being in the mountains of California), but I did see that the Royals finally sent Mike Moustakas to Triple-A Omaha.

It had to happen. Although he has shown glimpses of breaking out, the fact remains that it is the last week of May and he is yet to have a stretch of consistently performing even passably well. Even worse, between the few games where he has looked like remembering how to bat (eg, the 3 RBI game against Colorado) he has looked completely lost. I lost count of the number of times in the past few weeks I saw him strike out swinging at a pitch well outside the strike zone. He has clearly been straining mentally and it was not getting better. Sending him to Omaha was certainly the best thing for him and the club at this point.

How long he will be there is the interesting question. He batted superbly in Spring Training, so I would not rush to recall him even if he hits .500 for a couple or weeks. Danny Valencia has performed decently and can has played every day at the major league level plenty, so he can hold the third base spot for a while. I would let Moose play at Omaha for at least a month, even if he looks like he has got things back together right away. I suspect he needs time to really settle in, find his form again and just put the first seven weeks of this season out of his mind.

Roses preview

After a two year wait, there is finally going to be a four day Roses match this week. It has to be said though, that unless Lancashire play a lot better than they have shown for most of the start of the year and especially better than a fortnight ago against Middlesex, the match may not be worth the wait.

The match against Middlesex was not quite a shambles, but our batting effectively failed again. Whilst it was our highest first innings score this season, it was not nearly enough on a fairly flat wicket on which our bowlers toiled. Middlesex admittedly batted well, but it is worth remembering that going into that match they had faired little better than we had with the bat. Even with Kyle Hogg returning, only scoring 266 in a flat wicket in the first innings was simply not enough. Much as I hate to say it, Yorkshire look to be a strong side and they will provide just as much of a test as Middlesex did. The batsmen in particular will have to rise to this challenge much better.

Whether or not that will actually happen, we will have to see. The signs in the three day match against Loughborough MCCU were mixed, but it did seem a bit more of the same: a poor first innings total bailed out by a good performance with the ball and then a better batting display in the second innings. I don’t think that will be good enough against Yorkshire. Unfortunately there isn’t really an obvious solution. Luis Reece and Karl Brown both scored second innings runs, but that isn’t really a cause for optimism as much as it is a reason not to drop them.

If we do manage to get some runs on the board, I would back our bowling to be able to make inroads, but as we saw against Middlesex, that isn’t a guarantee. Jimmy Anderson will be absent again, though an attack of Glen Chapple, Kyle Hogg, Tom Smith (on current form) and Simon Kerrigan should be quite capable. It might be worth playing Kabir Ali as he has looked fairly sharp over the start of the season, but ultimately I would prefer not to weaken the batting any more.

I won’t actually be able to follow this match very closely though; I am currently at a radio observatory in the mountains of eastern California and will be throughout the match. This post was actually supposed to go up days ago, but due to packing and travel I could not quite finish it. I’ll be seeing score updates and my fingers are crossed, but I do worry that the typical turgid draw of a Roses match may be the best case result this time.

Lancs’ batting woes

Lancashire have played a quarter of their Championship matches this season and although it is still certainly early there are some areas of concern. Although our record (one win, two draws, one loss) is not really dire on the face of it, both draws were losing draws. We were saved by bad light against Warwickshire (admittedly after putting up a good fight) and by rain against Sussex. The bowling has been decent so far; the problem has very much been the batting. The extent to which we have struggled with the bat is highlighted by a glance at the Division One table; we have just one batting point from four matches. That by itself has actually cost us a place; our record is better than that of Nottinghamshire, but they have managed ten batting points which is enough for them to sit in sixth whilst we are in seventh.

Paul Horton has batted well at the top of the order, but then the entire middle order has consistently struggled and the fact that we scored enough runs to beat Northamptonshire was down largely to the efforts of Jos Buttler and Tom Smith down the order. Luis Reece still has promise, but he is yet to do in the first division what he did in the second last year. Andrea Agathangelou was dropped after the first three matches, but at least against Sussex Karl Brown and Steven Croft did not fare any better. Possibly most worrying is that Ashwell Prince has done very little to follow up his century in the opening match. Even before the season started it was clear that we were going to be relying on him to stabilise an inexperienced batting order and our struggles are directly tied to his struggles.

There isn’t an easy fix to this. It is reasonable to expect that a batsman of the potential of Reece will find some form as the season goes on and the same will likely be true of Prince. Brown and Croft have only had one innings and so might improve, but at the same time there is a reason they did not play at the start of the season. The only real active step Glen Chapple and Mike Watkinson can take right now is to try to find an overseas batsman for the remainder of the season. Simon Katich did an excellent job last year in that role; right now we really need someone who can do that again. There are unfortunately no obvious options and the fact that we are five weeks into the season with no overseas signing suggests that most of the less-obvious ones are not interested either. So it looks like we will be spending most or all of the summer hoping our current batsmen remember how to bat. Our bowling is good enough and there is enough promise in the batsmen that this isn’t a disaster, but I worry it will mean a pretty nervous (not to mention frustrating) summer in the bottom half of the table.

There is some good news ahead of tomorrow’s match against Middlesex, however: Kyle Hogg has recovered from the injury that kept him out of the first four matches of the season. Although Jimmy Anderson is unavailable after playing against Scotland this weekend, it does mean a return to something close to our first choice attack against a Middlesex side whose batting has almost been as frail as ours. If we can bowl first we have a good chance to bowl them out cheaply and then we might be able to ease some of the pressure on our own middle order. Fingers crossed…

Hello again! (And thoughts for the first Test)

Looking at the most recent post (before this) two things stand out: first is that it begins with an apology for not writing and the second is that it is eleven months old. So apologies again. In my defence, I spent those elven months first moving house, then starting grad school and preparing to do research in astrophysics. It has been a touch busy. And there is nothing to really suggest that it will get markedly better, but we’ll see how things play out. I did actually watch sport over the winter though and have some thoughts on the winter of discontent going into the international summer.

First off is that England probably made the right choice as far as a new head coach goes. It would have been better if Andy Flower had not left, but having done so it was down to Mike Newell or Peter Moores for me. I was hoping Newell so that Moores would stay at Lancashire, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will do an excellent job. This of course ties into the big story over the winter of Kevin Pietersen. I don’t want to drag that up again too much; I made my feelings very clearly known on Twitter and I’ll only go into detail if his fanboys find some fresh stupidity.

The biggest issue going into the summer is the uncertainty regarding the actual positions. There is one spot at the top of the order free, two in the middle order (assuming that Ben Stokes plays at six in the long-term even if he is not fit for the first Test), the spinner’s role and the third seamer all up for grabs. I am not including the wicket-keeper as vacant because I do not at all think that Matt Prior was dropped for anything other than an experiment; if he is fit he will keep wicket for the first Test.

The opener’s spot is probably the most straightforward: it should go to Sam Robson. He had an excellent year last year, has started well this year and has stated an ambition to bat for England. Give him a shot. The only other option would be Nick Compton and whilst I do think he was harshly dropped he has not done as much as Robson since then. He would be the reserve choice, however.

For the middle order, Joe Root is the incumbent in one of the spots and probably will get another go at five. If he is picked, hopefully he stays there most or all of the summer; he has not had enough time to settle in to any one spot properly and that cannot have helped him. At the same time, however, he did struggle for much of last year and cannot be said to have nailed his spot down. It is mostly due to his potential that he still seems to be a fixture in the side. The other spot is more open. Gary Ballance is technically the man in possession, but as with the wicket-keeper’s spot above I am very reluctant to take the selection late in the winter too seriously. However, he earned his callup with an excellent 2013 and he has started this year well. The same is true of Moeen Ali, however, and his weight of runs has certainly pushed him into the frame. Those are the most likely options but James Taylor, after being so harshly discarded in 2012, has batted well both for Nottinghamshire and the Lions and Jonny Bairstow is technically in the current XI. I don’t see either as particularly likely candidates though. I actually would prefer to see both Ballance and Ali bat in the middle order; I think they have both done more to get the spots than Root has. If Stokes is not fit then I would have Root at six, but otherwise I would let him bat with Yorkshire for at least the series against Sri Lanka.

For Graeme Swann’s replacement, it seems like every spinner in the country has been mentioned at least once. The realistic candidates are Scott Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, James Tredwell and Monty Panesar. I am biased, of course, but for me it has to be Kerrigan. He only bowled a handful of overs in his previous Test and simply cannot be judged on that. More importantly, none of the other candidates have come close to matching his first-class record over the past few seasons. Kerrigan is, without question, the best spinner in the County Championship and that has to make him the front runner for the vacant England role.

There is one way Kerrigan could reasonably be left out of the first Test against Sri Lanka, however, and that is if England field an all-seam attack and there is a decent argument for doing so. Steve Finn, Graham Onions, Tim Bresnan and Chris Jordan all have cases, but this is possibly the oddest of any of the contest for a place. Just judging on first-class form Finn and Onions have to be the front runners and I think they probably are. But Finn’s mechanics were apparently completely hopeless in Australia and he fell well out of favour. Meantime, Onions did everything anyone could have asked last summer and never seemed to even be considered. Bresnan looks a shadow of his former self and although Jordan looked excellent last year it was the first time he has done so.

This adds up to Bresnan probably being the longest shot; I’d like to see him bowl for Yorkshire and maybe fight his way back into the reckoning, and I think he could be quite good again, but right now he looks a long way from Test quality. There is not a lot to pick between the other three, however, which is why I think picking an all-seam attack against Sri Lanka may be the way to go. Finn and Jordan are probably the best two choices; they are similar styles of bowler and it is a style which probably fits best behind Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. In the longer term, however, I would like to see England be more willing to go ‘horses-for-courses’; if a pitch calls will suit the swing bowlers more then play another one in Onions. If more pace is needed, then supplement the attack with Finn or Jordan.

At least right now (and it is still a month until the first Test, so this may change) my XI for Lord’s would be:
Alastair Cook*
Sam Robson
Ian Bell
Moeen Ali
Gary Ballance
Ben Stokes
Matt Prior†
Stuart Broad
Chris Jordan
Steve Finn
Jimmy Anderson

England 2-0 New Zealand

First, apologies for not writing in some time. I’ve tended to either be too busy to sit down long enough or too uninspired to write anything even vaguely coherent. (That last one may still be the case, we shall see.) Anyway, here follow my belated thoughts on England’s 2-0 series victory against New Zealand.

Despite the scoreline, there was a lot of criticism during the series of England’s approach and I do think that some of it was warranted. In the first Test, the focus was mainly on England’s very slow scoring rate in the first innings. This criticism was completely unwarranted as the rest of the Test showed: it was hard to bat on that wicket and England’s first innings score turned out to be not only the slowest of the match, but also the highest.

More reasonable, however, was the criticism of Cook in the second Test. It was a match in which the first day was entirely lost to rain and one which England thoroughly dominated. But Cook declined to enforce the follow-on despite that and even after deciding to bat again, England showed no signs of wanting to win. They batted very slowly on the third evening and very late into the fourth day, despite rain forecast on day five. To an extent this was vindicated as England did manage to win, albeit with very little time left before the rain set in on the last day. Cook’s decision not to enforce the follow-on was at least reasonable: he wanted the New Zealand left arm bowlers to give Swanny a bit more rough going into the last innings. Given that England’s lead was not actually over two hundred (the lead required to enforce the follow-on was reduced to 150 after the first day was washed out) this is at least understandable, though at the time I was inclined to disagree with it.

But the overall mentality of England after that point was very troubling. The plan was very clearly to try to make the match safe, despite the extreme unlikeliness of New Zealand ever putting up a challenge and the knowledge that more time was likely to be lost to rain. This was made clear not merely by the lateness of the declaration, though Cook did set New Zealand at least 150 more runs than were ever going to be needed, but by the fields set in the fourth innings. With New Zealand chasing over 460 to win, Cook could have been very aggressive; runs were not at all relevant at that stage. But he did not attack until very late in the innings, preferring instead the more defensive fields for most of the fourth day. This was entirely the wrong message to send.

But apart from that, there was a lot about which England could be happy in the series. In particular, Graeme Swann showed that he was back to full fitness and is as potent as ever ahead of the Ashes. Stuart Broad also continued the return to form he started to show in New Zealand. But most of all England will be pleased with Jimmy Anderson. He did not have a great winter (though that is by his rather lofty standards), however he was at his absolute best at Lord’s and got the ball to swing prodigiously. The batting left a bit more to be desired, but a lot of that has to go to the way New Zealand bowled. Their seamers were very good in both matches and got plenty of swing themselves.

Whilst the result was largely expected, it will be disappointing for New Zealand after how well they did at home against England back in March. In the home series they fared quite well with the bat, putting up large scores in both the first and last Tests and comfortably securing a draw in the second. With the ball swinging more in England, however, they looked hopelessly out of their depth. They had one partnership of note, when Broad and Steven Finn lost their line in the first innings at Lord’s. Not only were they troubled by swing, they could not handle Swann turning the ball out of the footholes generated by their own left arm pacemen. Their struggles with the bat were reminiscent of their tour of South Africa and it is something they need to fix very quickly.

Lord’s, day three: England 180-6

It was finally England’s day at Lord’s and it was so close to being decisively England’s day. England at one point led by 184 runs with eight wickets in hand, but finished it effectively 205-6 and need Ian Bell to bat well with the tail tomorrow.

Right up to the last half an hour, however, everything had been going England’s way. England started the day by getting Brendan McCullum in the first over and from there the Kiwis collapsed as dramatically as England had done the previous day. New Zealand lost their last six wickets for just 52 runs and their last seven for exactly sixty going back to the dismissal of Dean Brownlie last night. As would be expected with those figures, England did bowl better. Stuart Broad in particular was consistently the right length and not coincidentally was consistently threatening. It was he who got the wicket of McCullum, admittedly to an ill-advised swipe outside off. The bowling figures would suggest that Steven Finn also improved dramatically, but his was more a case of it being better to be lucky than good. He was still too short; a pitch map late in the innings showed no balls pitched full of a length. Broad was comfortably the better bowler of the two, but Finn managed to mop up the tail.

The standout performer with the ball was James Anderson, however. He got a much-deserved bit of luck when Kane Williamson strangled one down leg, but picked up his five-fer with an unplayable delivery to Bruce Martin. He finished with staggering figures of 24-11-47-5. His eleven maidens were four more than the rest of the attack managed combined. He now has 303 Test wickets and has a chance to go past Fred Trueman when he bowls in the second innings.

England very nearly managed to bat New Zealand out of the game in the evening session. There was a wobble before tea when Alastair Cook and Nick Compton were both out with the score on 36, but Jonathan Trott and Joe Root batted superbly the blunt the New Zealand attack and build the lead. In a match where only Ross Taylor had looked comfortable for the first two and a half days, it was a fantastic performance. It was so close to putting New Zealand out of the match, though it may yet prove to have been enough.

Tim Southee deserves a lot of credit for continuing to bowl testing deliveries even when his cause seemed lost. He did for New Zealand much what Anderson did for England. But England will be a touch concerned with how softly the four wickets went down before stumps. Root was a bit lazy with a defensive shot and edged the ball onto the stumps, then Bairstow got into a bit of a tangle trying to play an admittedly good delivery. Matt Prior continued a shocking game by tamely pulling a ball straight to square leg and Trott’s resistance was ended when he tried to drive a ball that was spinning back into him. In every case the New Zealanders bowled well, but England were just a bit too casual.

England’s lead is at 205 at stumps, so they are still in a good position. Batting has seldom been easy in this match and the ball is turning and bouncing very sharply already. Anderson and Broad can reasonably expect the ball to continue swing in the fourth innings and Swann will be able to turn it out of the footholes created by the New Zealand left-armers. Williamson showed that the turn from there is very sharp and there is some bounce to go with it. England are 27 runs away from setting New Zealand the highest score of the match to win and certainly anything more than 250 will be very tricky. But New Zealand do have an opening now and the match is far from over. The key tomorrow morning will probably be Ian Bell. He was ill for most of today and he will have to bat with the tail tomorrow. He needs to get some runs as England cannot expect much from the tailenders.

Lord’s, day two: New Zealand 153-4

New Zealand are probably on top after two days of play at Lord’s, but today was highlighted by Jimmy Anderson taking his 300th Test wicket, only the fourth English bowler to do so. He was far and away the standout performer for England today; England needed something big after being bowled out cheaply and Anderson came up with a wicket in the first over of the innings. He bowled beautifully throughout the day and not only got his 300th, but he then got the vital wicket of Ross Taylor as he was threatening to take the game away from England. Anderson could have even had a fourth, as Matt Prior dropped a fairly simple chance.

At the start of the day, New Zealand once again bowled very well to England. Although Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow batted well for the first hour of the day, the first wicket triggered a dramatic collapse. It was actually not a good delivery; Tim Southee pushed a ball down the leg side to Root, but the batsmen could only get a nick through to the keeper. This was about the time the second new ball started to swing as well and Matt Prior got a borderline unplayable delivery from Southee next ball for a golden duck. From there the lower order stood very little chance; Southee and Neil Wagner had the ball swinging around corners and none of the bowlers made it into double figures. England were bowled out for 232 just after lunch; even in what looks like a low-scoring match it is almost certainly under par.

England needed to bowl well in response and although New Zealand showed quite clearly how to bowl, only Anderson seemed to be watching. He bowled very well, but the other two seamers did not. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that Steven Finn bowled only one good ball in the entire day. Finn is so tall that he can pitch the ball on a good or even a full length and still get enough bounce to trouble the batsmen. But he spent nearly the entire day today bowling short and in general wide and he was mercilessly punished by Taylor. Stuart Broad was little better, though he did improve as the day wore on and had more threatening spells. But his length was also wrong for most of the day and went for far too many runs.

Taylor did bat very well for his 66 and deserves a lot of credit for it, but the way Finn and Broad to him was utterly dire and it has put New Zealand in a far better position than they might or should have been. Finn especially needs to learn from the one wicket that he took today. It was the one of, if not the only ball that he properly pitched up and he trapped Dean Brownlie lbw. He has the continue to bowl full for the rest of the Test and apply pressure, if he does not improve then Tim Bresnan has to come into the side for the second Test.

Although New Zealand are on top, England should not panic just yet. Anderson bowled so well that they are still very much in the match. In fact, New Zealand are almost in the exact same position as England were at the start of the day; England’s fourth wicket fell on 157, New Zealand’s fell on 147. New Zealand will still likely get a first innings lead, England can hardly expect the Kiwi lower order to collapse as dramatically as England’s did, but New Zealand also need a first innings lead. There is already a lot of turn and bounce for Graeme Swann and New Zealand will have to bat last. If England can keep New Zealand to a lead of under fifty, and that is a big ‘if’, they will still be in a decent position. To do that, they will need Broad and Finn to bowl a lot better tomorrow than they did today.

Lord’s, day one: England 160-4

The Test summer has finally started! New Zealand are probably on top after a very interesting day of cricket. Neither side really dominated and the day was primarily one of attrition; New Zealand were not overly threatening for most of it, but it was very hard for England to score runs and New Zealand took wickets at important moments twice.

England’s slow scoring (exactly two an over) did prompt some criticism, but there was very little that they could do given the conditions. The pitch was flat, but on the slow side and the outfield was very slow making scoring difficult. New Zealand bowled well for the most part; they were only directly threatening for about an hour after lunch, but they were seldom wayward and generally put the batsmen under pressure. The ball swung for the first half of the day and England had to focus on seeing off the worst of the conditions; they could not try to increase the scoring rate without taking undue risks. Scoring at three an over was simply not feasible today and given that fact, England’s approach was very good. They worked hard to keep wickets in hand and to try to set themselves up for the rest of the Test. The conditions were actually not dissimilar to those England encountered on the first day in Dunedin a few months ago; there England did not reign themselves in and their subsequent collapse almost cost them the Test. They showed today that they learnt from that and have given themselves a chance to put up a decent score tomorrow.

The crucial moment of the day was when Jonathan Trott was out just before tea. It was a wicket against the run of play; England had done very well to get through a difficult period after lunch with only two wickets gone and Trott and Ian Bell were settling in and starting to score runs more freely. But an excellent delivery from Trent Boult forced Trott to play before taking the edge which was very well caught by a diving third slip. This forced England back onto the defensive with the new batsman coming in just before the tea interval and they then had to spend the better part of another hour consolidating again. Without that wicket, England would have had a chance to start dominating proceedings in the evening session and would have likely been on top at stumps and possibly in a very strong position.

The wicket of Ian Bell was also an important one, but unlike Trott it was a gift to New Zealand. Bell had worked very hard after coming in just after lunch in difficult conditions and by what would prove to be the penultimate over before stumps (actually the 79th in the day) he had ground out 31 off 133 deliveries. But he lost his patience and hung his bat rather tamely at a ball well wide of off stump. There was no need at all to play at it and it turned the game from being slightly in England’s favour to being more strongly in New Zealand’s favour. It was easily the most frustrating moment of the day as Bell threw away a session and a half of very good work.

Tomorrow should also be an interesting day. The second new ball will be due immediately and England have a new batsman at the crease in Jonny Bairstow. England also have two very inexperienced batsmen at the crease, though Joe Root has been in excellent form for Yorkshire and the Lions so far. They will need to consolidate more in the morning and must stick together and put on a decent partnership. Matt Prior is the next man in and if he can come to with wicket with England in a decent position then he can start to transfer the pressure over to New Zealand. It is hard to know how Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad will fare, but they will attack as well and it is important that England are in a position of comfort when they do so. The pitch itself looks like one on which a decent score is possible, but the overhead conditions may yet turn the match into a low scoring affair so it is hard to say what sort of score England need to be competitive. It is highly unlikely that anything under 325 will do, however, and that is still some way off.

England v New Zealand preview

The 2013 Test summer begins this Thursday when England play the first of two Tests against the visiting Kiwis. England are looking to show put their poor performance in New Zealand behind them and go into the Ashes on a high. It should be a good series, however, New Zealand showed in that series two months ago that they are a good team and if they can continue to perform consistently they will remain tough to beat.

There were few surprises in the twelve man squad England named for the first Test; Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan are both back from injury and they are replacing Monty Panesar and Chris Woakes. Other than that, England are unchanged from the team that played in Auckland at the end of March. The only question for Thursday is whether Bresnan or Steven Finn will play, but Finn is the likely candidate. He didn’t overwhelm anyone in New Zealand, but he did manage a six-wicket haul in the final Test and with Bresnan having only just returned from his elbow surgery I would be surprised if England decided to leave Finn out. The only reason why they might is if they wanted to get a look at Bresnan ahead of the Ashes, but I expect they would wait until the second Test to do any tinkering and even then only if England won at Lord’s. This another case where a third Test would do very nicely, but the ECB have only seen fit to schedule two. If Bresnan does not play, then hopefully England will send him up to Edgbaston to take part in Yorkshire’s Championship match there as he really needs to play one way or another.

The lack of any spare batsman in the squad confirmed that England would be playing both Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow in the middle order. They both made good scores for the Lions against New Zealand and Root has had an incredible start to the domestic season, so it’s a reasonable choice though it does seem like one which was made some time ago and is more fortunate than clever. Bairstow certainly and to a lesser extent Root will be under a bit of pressure during the series as one of them will miss out when Kevin Pietersen returns from injury. This has been no bad thing for Root in the past, but England will hope that it does not affect Bairstow as they do badly need the middle order to perform better than they did in New Zealand.

New Zealand don’t have very many selection questions either. There is certainly no pressing need to change the batting after the job they did against England in New Zealand. The bowlers were also generally successful and in fact Daniel Vettori has been left out of the squad after the job Bruce Martin did in the three Tests in March. Neil Wagner also had an excellent series, but his place in the XI is not quite so secure. Wagner was only in the side after Doug Bracewell injured his foot and although he kept his place throughout that series, it isn’t clear whether or not Bracewell will return to the side now. Wagner had the better figures of the two when both played at Derbyshire, but that was not against a strong batting lineup and Bracewell was selected for the match against the Lions as part of what looked like a full-strength New Zealand side. I don’t know as much about the New Zealand selectors, but I suspect it will be Bracewell for the first Test.

That New Zealand have the dilemma of Wagner v Bracewell is something of a luxury as both will be part of an attack that can certainly make life difficult for the England batsmen. But even without Pietersen, I think England will put on a better batting display than they did during most of the New Zealand series. All of the top order have been it at least decent if not very good form early in the season and all have had a decent amount of time in the middle. Because of the early season conditions favouring the bowlers I don’t expect too many really big team scores, but they should be less reliant on Alastair Cook this time and be better able to put up competitive totals.

England will also hope that their batsmen will not need to score as many runs this time. England’s seam attack did not seem to really ‘click’ in New Zealand, though part of that was that they didn’t get a lot of help from the pitch or conditions, and they need to do better in this series. England are at least back up to full strength and like New Zealand have the luxury of leaving out a very good bowler. Stuart Broad and James Anderson both had successful runs for their respective county sides as well, though Finn was less impressive. The New Zealand batsmen have been a bit hit-or-miss in the tour matches as well. That does not necessarily mean a lot, but some of them have had very little time in the middle now and may be vulnerable in the first Test. Getting both of the openers cheaply will be important for England; if they can do that they should be able to bowl New Zealand out cheaply at least in the first Test.

It is very unfortunate that the series is only two Tests; it will make it very hard to get much out of it and one bad innings early on could be the difference. It will also make it harder for England to really assess the players ahead of the Ashes later this summer. Ultimately if England play as well as we know they can, they should prevail. But that was also true in New Zealand and England were quite fortunate to escape with a share of that trophy. The series is short enough that there is a decent chance for New Zealand to get at least a draw, if not an unlikely win, but I think England probably will win the series as long as the weather does not interfere too much. Certainly if they don’t it will sound alarm bells ahead of the Ashes. It should be a fairly hard-fought series and New Zealand should have at least periods where they are on top, but I think England will win 1-0.

Lancashire v Essex preview

Lancashire have their third home match in four games this week as they play Essex at Old Trafford starting on Tuesday. Both teams got their first win of the season last week and both in fairly dramatic fashion, so both will be looking to continue their momentum.

Lancashire will have two enforced changes from the attack that managed to defend 154 at Colwyn Bay last week. Jimmy Anderson will return to England duty ahead of next week’s first Test against New Zealand and Simon Kerrigan will be with the England Lions as they play a New Zealand XI starting on the ninth. I expect Wayne White will return to the side after he made a good start to his Lancashire career against Worcestershire and Stephen Parry looks likely to replace Kerrigan. Although this is an obviously weaker attack, it is still one capable of taking wickets. The main spearheads of Glen Chapple and Kyle Hogg will still be present and White certainly poses an attacking threat. Those three will be backed up by Parry, who has generally been playing in the shorter forms, and Luke Procter whose bowling has been getting more incisive. Although it has been a bit difficult to take wickets at Old Trafford so far this season, I don’t think this attack will struggle any more than the others have done.

Lancashire’s top six should be unchanged; although they had a poor match at Colwyn Bay, they have been very good in the other two matches and twice put Lancashire into winning positions. Lancashire bat very deep, as Hogg showed at Colwyn Bay, but the upper and middle order have generally done well enough that this has not been needed. Ashwell Prince and Simon Katich in particular have been excellent. The only criticism that could be levelled is that they have not scored particularly quickly. Whilst there is no one who would prefer a quick 200 all out to a slow 450-7, it has hampered Lancashire’s ability to get batting bonus points and meant that when it has rained there has not been enough time left to force a result. Getting runs on the board is paramount, but if Lancashire can do it a little bit quicker in this match they will be better off than they have been.

Lancashire will be disappointed to see that Alastair Cook will be bolstering the Essex ranks. The visitors’ batting has been suspect at times this year, but having Cook at the top of the order will relieve a lot of the pressure on the middle order and Graham Napier has shown in each of their last two matches that they can recover from a pretty dire position. But at the same time that means that they have been in dire positions a lot and the Lancashire bowlers will be eying up the Essex middle order very keenly. There are a lot of single figure scores there and a lot of very quick collapses in the last couple of matches. The key for Lancashire will not only be to get into that position of strength, but to actually finish Essex off from there.

Lancashire may have to fight the weather again as well as Essex. The forecast for the first day is excellent; there is very little chance of rain and the temperature is supposed to get all the way up to 20°C. From there, however, there is a distinct chance of rain on the second and third days and it is supposed to get much colder as well. Lancashire’s best chance to win is probably to bat first, then try to score a bit quicker than they have done and get a good total on the board before spending the rest of the match trying to put the Essex batsmen under pressure. It is a tough ask, as it always is when overs are lost due to weather, and they have to get through Alastair Cook. But if they can get past Cook and Napier then the rest of Essex’s batting is flimsy enough that Lancs should have a very good chance to win even with the rain.

It’s very close, but I think Lancashire will win with a draw being the next most likely outcome. That’s not to rule out Essex who did well to bowl a solid Hampshire batting order out fairly cheaply last week, but much like when Lancashire played Kent I think a lot more will have to go Essex’s way for them to get into a winning position then it would for Lancs to do the same.

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