New Zealand Test squad and EPS revealed

Amidst all the build up to the start of the County Championship next week, there have also been the first reminders that the International summer starts in less than a month with New Zealand arriving at the beginning of May for their two Test series. Although it is the norm for the five Ashes Tests to be preceded by a two Test series, it is somewhat disappointing after the excitement of the New Zealand leg of the series for the return affair to be so short. Given that there were only six Tests in the summer last year, an eighth Test this year would have been quite welcome in place of the three ODIs that will be utterly lost in the Champions Trophy.

Scheduling disappointments aside, both the New Zealand touring squad and the England Performance Squad for the full summer were announced this week. There were few surprises in the fifteen named by New Zealand. The XI who played all three Tests in New Zealand were obvious inclusions and they are joined by Doug Bracewell, Martin Guptill, Mark Gillespie and Tom Latham. It is not a great shock given that Bracewell and Guptill both missed out due to injury and Latham and Gillespie were both on the fringes of the side before the start of the series. The interesting omission is that of Daniel Vettori who missed the series in New Zealand with an injury, but is back fit for the tour of England. There was a lot of discussion about whether he would regain his place, but his to even make the squad as a reserve spinner answers that question quite definitively. The squad might also be a bit short of cover in the middle order; Guptill is primarily an opener and Latham at least seems to be treated as an opener. Over the course of only two Tests, however, there is not a lot of need for depth in the squad, especially after the performance at home has clarified a lot of selection problems.

Even though England’s squad was the more general England Performance Squad, there was an important omission. James Taylor continues to make a strong case for being the unluckiest man in England. He has done absolutely nothing wrong, yet Eoin Morgan and his first class average in the thirties was preferred for the squad in India and England took a smaller than usual squad to New Zealand. Now Taylor, despite being one of the only bright spots in a disastrous Lions tour to Australia, appears to be completely forgot behind Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. Neither of them really impressed in New Zealand and there is no reason why Taylor should not still be in the picture.

The aforementioned Morgan did get a place in the EPS, presumably for his continued selection in the pyjama forms. He should not be even mentioned in contention for a Test place, however. Not only does he have nothing at the first class level to recommend him, he has chosen to play in the IPL instead of trying to improve his first-class record. If nothing else, that should tell the England selectors quite clearly where his priorities lie. The same is true for Samit Patel, who was dropped for the last Test in India despite being selected as a specialist for the subcontinent.

It looks like it will be down to Root and Bairstow still and I would like to see them each get one Test. Neither have made a decisive case yet (all the more reason to give Taylor a go, but never mind) and unless one of them does so in the first few matches of the County Championship or with the Lions there seems no reason to give one the advantage over the other.

On the bowling side, Tim Bresnan might get a chance to take the third seamer role back from Steven Finn, though the latter’s six-fer in the last Test will have made that harder. And although Monty Panesar looked under some threat for his place as Graeme Swann’s understudy after a poor performance in New Zealand, the only other spinner named in the EPS is Danny Briggs. Whilst it is not out of the question that he could get a Test cap in May, he has been primarily around England’s pyjama sides. That the two Lions spinners, Simon Kerrigan and Scott Borthwick, have been omitted suggests that Panesar is safe.

2013 MLB preview and predictions

After an elongated Spring Training the 2013 regular season is upon us. The official first game is tonight between the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros. (Although I very much like the Sunday Night opener, it loses a bit when it does not feature the defending World Champion as used to be the case.) This year will be the first one with the Astros in the American League and the new schedule format that sees interleague play throughout the year. As with last year my preview is written division-by-division.

AL West
Although the division has been one of the stronger ones in baseball for the last few years, but I think this year it will actually be the weakest in the American League. None of the teams look particularly convincing on paper. The A’s won last year on the last day of the season with a very young pitching staff providing the impetus down the stretch. They beat the Rangers on the last day of the season to avoid playing in the Wild Card Game. The Rangers played instead and lost at home. The Angels were expected to do much more than limp to third place as they ultimately did and the Mariners respectably for much of the season, but had a mountain to climb and finished last. But this year the Rangers are weaker and the Angels have marginally improved on paper, but there’s reason to think it might not pan out.

The Oakland A’s have a similar team this year, but actually replicating what they achieved last year will be difficult. They probably aver-achieved last year and although they certainly still have a talented team, there are very few who can replicate the kind of form from year to year. They’re well-placed for the future, but I expect they will be in the mid-to-high eighties in terms of wins this year. The Texas Rangers have added AJ Pierzynski behind the plate and Joakim Soria in the bullpen, but overall look a weaker team than they did last year. The loss of Josh Hamilton will hurt. They have enough though that I think they will finish the year at the top of the division. The Los Angeles Angels are the favourite of many after adding Josh Hamilton over the winter, but they lost Zack Greinke and after their rotation never really clicked last year I don’t think they have the pitching to back up their big-name bats and that is even if Hamilton and Albert Pujols live up to their billing. I’m not at all convinced that they will, however, as Pujols already looks past his best and Hamilton’s numbers will no longer be skewed by playing in a thimble in Arlington. Failures in the Angles batting will open the door for the Seattle Mariners. They had a good finish to the season last year and played respectably overall, but they did not do enough to even get out of last place. They still have ‘King Felix’ this year and some good if not dazzling players and should vie with the Angels for third place. It would be a surprise if they did more, but they are well placed to pull off a surprise. The Houston Astros are the newcomers to the division and they arrive after losing more than a hundred games in back-to-back years. It’s hard to see how they’ll have much an improvement this year and I would be shocked if they avoided last place. Division prediction:

Rangers
A’s
Mariners
Angels
Astros

AL Central
Last year the Tigers were supposed to romp to victory, but instead left it to quite late and were fairly fortunate that the White Sox collapsed flat in the last fortnight of the season. None of the other teams mounted a coherent challenge. The Royals finished third after a season marred by injury and losing streaks, the Indians went into free fall in the second half for a fourth place finish and the Twins had another nightmare season and could not quite catch the Indians at the death. This year the Tigers are strong favourites again, but all of the other teams have fairly significant unknowns and could realistically finish in almost any order.

The Detroit Tigers have actually improved from last year with the return of Victor Martinez and the addition of Torii Hunter to boost the hitting and defence and they still have a terrifyingly strong rotation. If they perform as they should (no guarantee, as we saw last year) they will be very, very hard to catch. Meantime, the Chicago White Sox are relying on much the same team from last year to deliver much the same results. But they were a surprise team last year and for decent reason; although they have a solid team it does not look like one which should be contending. In effect, the White Sox are gambling a season on last year not having some element of fluke to it. I think this gamble will fail for the most part and although they will play okay they will find themselves overtaken. More on the Kansas City Royals below, but they finally have all the pieces to win a spot in the top half of the table. Whether they can put them together this year remains to be seen. The Cleveland Indians changed their team quite extensively in the close season and appear to have boosted their lineup and defence. But their pitching rotation still contains few demons and although it may not take much to push them back toward the top of the division, they were there for the first half of last year after all, they don’t look like they have the pitching to do it. They might have enough to jump to third place. The Minnesota Twins still have many of the players that kept them at or near the top of the division for much of the noughties, but there is no suggestion that they will be able to put together a substantially better season this year than they did last year. Given the improvement to most of the other teams, I think it will be very difficult for the Twins to avoid last place. Division prediction:

Tigers
Royals
Indians
White Sox
Twins

AL East
Last year the Orioles were one of the surprise teams in baseball as they so nearly knocked the Yankees off the top of the division and then had a go at knocking them out of the ALDS too. Both efforts sadly failed. The Rays hung around until the end of the season, but never made a real push whilst the Blue Jays played well without being threatening. The real shock was the Red Sox, who collapsed utterly both on and off the field and an ugly sacking of their manager. This year the division looks wide open with five teams who have at least something to their credit. Perhaps more interesting is whoever will come last out of the bunch.

This year the New York Yankees will continue to furnish evidence that there is no god by not going the 0-162 that they so richly deserve. But they are starting to come apart at the seams a bit and I think they will fail to defend their crown and that mid-table mediocrity beckons. Unlike some other teams, I think the Baltimore Orioles do have a chance to reprise their success. Whilst they were a surprise in 2012, they weren’t a shock; they showed flashes of what they all the way back in 2010 and they have quite a strong roster still. I expect to see them back in contention and very possibly topping the table. The Tampa Bay Rays have not done much in the way of improvement for the immediate future, though they picked up some very good talent from the Royals over the winter that should help them in the long term. They are a good enough side that they should not unduly struggle, n the present, but the strength of the division means they may find themselves in the bottom half. The Toronto Blue Jays are the team who have really set down a marker. They were already a decent side and after a blockbuster trade with the Marlins and the signing of RA Dickey they look like an excellent one. At least on paper. If they don’t at least contend it will be a disappointment for them, but it might take some time for the team to really get going as a unit. I think second place may be the safest bet. The Boston Red Sox are hoping that last year was just a fluke and that with a new manager they can climb back up the table. I don’t think it will be that simple, however, and although they are now well behind the pack and may still finish at the bottom. Division prediction:

Orioles
Blue Jays
Yankees
Rays
Red Sox

NL West
Last year the NL West race was the focal point of a fair amount of controversy after Melky Cabrera was caught using steroids halfway through the season. Fortunately for the sport, the Giants showed for the rest of the season that they were not a one-man team and comfortably outplayed the Dodgers even without Cabrera. The Diamondbacks made a vague push, but ended up well out of the race and with only a .500 finish. The Padres scuffled along to a fourth-place finish, whilst the Rockies made headlines by completely revamping their pitching staff to essentially an all-reliever staff halfway through the year. They still ended the year in last place and barely avoided a hundred losses. This year looks like it will be the Giants and Dodgers again battling it out.

The San Francisco Giants have made precious few adjustments to the team that won the World Series last year and it is pretty easy to see why. They were a strong all-round team then and they remain so now. The only question mark is the depth of their pitching; the back end of the rotation did unexpectedly well for them last year and they need that to happen again. The Los Angeles Dodgers already had the National League Cy Young Award winner in Clayton Kershaw and they’ve added a former AL winner in Zack Greinke. It’s a formidable top two and there is a bit there to back them up too. They should not have to worry too much about their offensive production either and it should be a very close fight for the division. The Arizona Diamondbacks still give off the impression of a .500 team, which is exactly what they managed last year. The addition of Martin Prado will be a boost, but there is nothing really spectacular about the side. The San Diego Padres biggest asset is still their manager, Bud Black. They have a tiny payroll, the smallest in the majors last year, and performed at a level above that last year. But they will need that to continue, because they have made no major improvements over the winter. The Colorado Rockies need to sort out their pitching before they will be able to do much, but they can do that they do have some strong hitting. I think they will improve, but the Padres will have to play worse for the Rockies to have a shot at fourth place. Division prediction:

Dodgers
Giants
Diamondbacks
Padres
Rockies

NL Central
Last year the Reds ran away with the NL Central, winning with nine games to spare over the Cardinals. The Brewers could not mount a coherent challenge to the second spot and the Pirates stayed in the running until very late in the season before suffering another spectacular collapse. At the foot of the table both the Cubs and Astros lost a hundred games. This year the Astros are gone, having been shifted to the AL West, but apart from that it looks like the same set of teams challenging for the title.

The Cincinnati Reds were comfortably the best team in the NL Central last year and there is no reason to suspect they will not be again. They still have the same group of players who took them to within one game of the NLCS last year and they have added Shin-Soo Choo to still further bolster their offence. They will take some catching on their own merits and at the same time the St Louis Cardinals have lost some of the pitching that made them so threatening in the last two years. They are still a good side, but it’s taken some last ditch efforts to get them into the postseason twice, they may not have enough now. Some of the Cardinals’ pitching has actually gone to the Milwaukee Brewers in the form of Kyle Lohse. That was the main close season move for Milwaukee, although they also inexplicably brought Yuniesky Betancourt back. The Brewers also lost some pitching over the winter though and I expect they will be in a battle for second place. If the Pittsburgh Pirates can avoid another great collapse they may push for a playoff spot, but in each of the last two years they have failed to maintain their success over an entire year. They’ve added a bit of experience with Russell Martin behind the plate and with the rest of the team also another year older and more experienced they might be able to keep it together this year. I don’t think they will challenge for the top of the division, but there is definitely an opening for them to knock off one or both of the Cardinals or Brewers. I expect it will be very close between those three teams. The Chicago Cubs look like they are probably destined for a last place finish now that they no longer have the cushion of the Astros beneath them. There are some good players on the team, but they have not been able to turn that into wins in either of the past two years and the division is not an easy one. Divsion prediction:

Reds
Pirates
Cardinals
Brewers
Cubs

NL East
Last year the division belonged entirely to the Nationals who brought playoff baseball back to Washington DC and with time to spare. The Braves had quite a good season, right up until they lost the Wild Card Game whilst the Phillies failed to make a late run. The Mets had some standout pitching performances, but little else and the Marlins never really showed up. This year it looks like it will be the Nationals, Braves and Phillies competing again, though the Nats are probably favourites to repeat.

The Washington Nationals still have a lot of very good young players. Whilst they may not be able to perform the way they did last year, the Nats built up to their recent success and nothing about it looked like a fluke. They go into 2013 still with a good lineup and a good pitching rotation. The Atlanta Braves, in their quest to overcome a Cardinal shaped stumbling block, have added another Upton to the outfield to go along with Jason Heyward. They may find themselves a bit over-reliant on Kris Medlen in the rotation, however. Tim Hudson is starting to get a bit shaky and they need someone solid to support him. If Medlen pitches the way he did to end 2012 it won’t be a problem, but otherwise they look short on pitching. It was something of a surprise when the Philadelphia Phillies did so poorly last year. They still have a very powerful lineup and decent pitching to go with it. I think they can manage second place, especially if the Braves slip up, but no more. But they never really put anything together. I expect they will do better this year, but it may not be enough to get back to firm contention. The New York Mets will be hosting the All-Star Game this year, but that may be the high point of their season. They lost RA Dickey in the close season and don’t really have any replacement. Theirs is a fairly weak side, but they should be saved from the cellar by the Miami Marlins. The Marlins struck their colours months before the season even started; they sold the players they had bought just a year before, abandoning with unseemly haste their attempt at contention. However one feels about the logic of this move, it means that they will do very well to avoid last place this year. Division prediction:

Nationals
Phillies
Braves
Mets
Marlins

The Wild Cards are hard to predict as they don’t necessarily go to the two best divisions in each league. It’s one of the great flaws of the unbalanced schedule that Wild Card teams are measured against teams from other divisions whilst still competing with teams from their own. Some will end up with a much easier schedule than others and the balance of the divisions is as important as the strength of the team overall.

In the American League, the most likely divisions to produce the Wild Card are probably once again the West and the East. Even if the West is not terribly strong, it looks top-heavy and the second place team might be able to take a lot of wins off the Astros. The East does look like a strong division and even if it will be harder to win games in the division, it will probably not be harder than in the Central (which is also fairly evenly matched and probably a bit bottom-heavy) and the team in the East will have a better chance in games outside the division.

In the National League, I expect one of the Wild Cards to come from the West. It looks like a close battle with the Giants and Dodgers miles ahead of the pack, which would almost certainly mean the loser was a Wild Card. The other I think will come from the East where even if it is more of a three-team battle looks like it will have a couple of weak teams giving wins to the top of the division. The Central looks a more open battle, especially for second place, and if the wins will likely be too spread around for a Wild Card berth.

Were all that to happen, the Division Series would then be something like: Tigers v A’s/Blue Jays, Orioles v Rangers, Dodgers v Giants/Phillies, Nationals v Reds. From that, I divine Orioles v Blue Jays and Dodgers v Nationals in the Championship Series and then Orioles v Dodgers in the World Series. Dodgers to win in five. But that, even more than the rest, is guesswork.

For the Royals specifically, they made a concerted effort in the close season to at least get into the top half of the table this year. They have a much stronger rotation now than they did at this time last year and actually a stronger lineup too with Salvador Perez getting to play a full season. The trick will probably to get the fairly inexperienced lineup to fire consistently. Although the Royals are unlikely to actually compete for the title even if all goes well, a .500 record is probably the minimum expectation after all the investment of the close season. I think they will finish 86-76, which will probably be good enough for second place, maybe third if one of the Indians or White Sox do particularly well.

New Zealand 0-0 England player marks

England barely managed to avoid a series defeat in New Zealand for the first time in 29 years by clinging on to a draw in the last Test. Whilst it was not a good result for England, it was a good series with New Zealand making a mockery of their number eight ranking. One of the notable aspects of the series was that New Zealand named an unchanged side in all three Tests and England were only prevented from doing the same by an injury to Kevin Pietersen. My full series review has already gone up and my marks out of ten for the 23 players to contest the series are as follows:

New Zealand
Hamish Rutherford – 6
Rutherford started the series and his career with a brilliant knock of 171 that put New Zealand in charge of the Dunedin Test. After that, however, he was restricted to just 75 runs in his next four innings. He has still made sure that New Zealand have a coherent opening partnership for the near future.

Peter Fulton – 7
Fulton had a broadly similar series as Rutherford, but in reverse. he scraped by with the bat at the start of the series before scoring a pair of centuries in the last Test, the second coming with New Zealand having been reduced to 8-3. It was certainly a successful return to the side overall.

Kane Williamson – 5
It was a consistently decent series for Williamson, but little more. In five innings he made four scores over twenty and just one over sixty (and none over one hundred). His unbeaten 55 at the Basin Reserve was instrumental in New Zealand saving that Test and he formed a good partnership with Fulton on the first day at Eden Park, but he never played a really decisive innings. He did, despite some questions about his action, finish at the top of the series bowling averages with six wickets for ninety runs.

Ross Taylor – 2
After playing very well in 2012, Taylor struggled badly on his return to the side after the captaincy fallout. The 41* he made batting for the rain at Wellington was important, but his other four innings were quite poor.

Dean Brownlie – 3
Brownlie only got three innings in the series and although he did not have any truly low scores he never made more than 36. He always looked vaguely out of his depth and not quite ‘in’. His dismissal was part of a larger collapse all three times.

Brendan McCullum* – 9
It was a very good series for McCullum, his second as captain, the only thing lacking was a win. With the bat he came to his team’s rescue twice, either stopping or slowing down a collapse and then he took England’s bowling apart on the penultimate day of the series. He showed good attacking intent with his field settings and was comfortably the best captain of the two. He might rue not enforcing the follow-on in the last Test, however.

BJ Watling† – 4
It was not a terrible series for Watling, he did everything asked of him behind the stumps and occasionally made some useful runs down the order. His best innings came at Wellington where he made 60 as New Zealand very nearly saved the follow-on. He did not have a standout series either, however.

Tim Southee – 3
Although he was coming off a very good winter, Southee struggled in this series, taking only six wickets in the three Tests at a cost of over fifty apiece. Five of those six wickets came in the last Test, the only time he looked at all threatening.

Bruce Martin – 4
Martin was rather fortunate to take four wickets in the first innings of the series as England were very charitable. He bowled better in the rest of the series, but his returns actually dropped off and the fact that he took no wickets in the last Test was costly.

Neil Wagner – 7
Wagner was the surprise of the series for New Zealand. He was not even supposed to play, but got a chance after Doug Bracewell cut his foot before the first Test. Wagner responded with 4-42 in the first innings of the series and finished the series as the leading wicket taker on both sides with twelve.

Trent Boult – 8
Although Wagner was the surprise of the series, Boult probably made the biggest impact. He took eleven wickets at less than thirty, but six of those were in the first innings at Eden Park where he swung the ball both ways and was the main reason England were bowled out for only 204.

England
Alastair Cook* – 3
It was a disappointing series for the England captain. Not only was a 0-0 far from the desired result, he left a lot to be desired with his handling of the team and his form suffered, at least by his lofty standards. He did play an excellent hundred to help ensure a draw at Dunedin, but his other four innings yielded just 74 runs.

Nick Compton – 7
Compton came into the series with questions, albeit rather ridiculous ones, over his place in the side and he got off to a dreadful start with a four-ball duck. But he followed that up with excellent back-to-back centuries and has secured his place for the first Ashes Test.

Jonathan Trott – 8
Trott was one of the few England batsmen to have a very good series in New Zealand. He tried to hold the innings together in Dunedin as he top-scored with 45, before scoring 52 and 121 in his next two innings. He fell off a bit in the third Test, wasting a review in the first innings and throwing his wicket away in the second. Some of his critics might also be surprised to note that he finished the series with the best strike rate of any member of England’s top six. Surprisingly, he also topped England’s bowling averages with one wicket for 27.

Kevin Pietersen – 3
It was a lacklustre series for Pietersen. He was troubled by a knee injury throughout and was forced to miss the last Test. He only managed 85 runs in three innings in the first two, though the 73 he made in Wellington was one of his better innings.

Ian Bell – 4
On paper it was not a great series for Bell; he managed only 158 runs at an average of 38. He was definitely short of his best overall, but those figures do not do justice to the effort he put in to help England save the Test and the series at Auckland. He scored ‘only’ 75 runs, but off a mammoth 271 deliveries before finally succumbing to a loose shot on the stroke of tea.

Joe Root – 2
Root was built up by the media before the series and so was probably always going to fall short in some way. But 88 runs in five innings was much more dramatic than anyone would have expected. Not only is he not about to replace Compton at the top of the order, his own place at six is not secure.

Matt Prior† – 10
England could not possibly have asked any more from Prior than what he delivered. He went past fifty three times in five innings, including his match saving 110* at Auckland. He also made sure that England got a decent score after wobbling in Wellington and throughout the series did his usual sterling job with the gloves.

Stuart Broad – 7
After a very poor and injury-hampered series in India, Broad came back very well in this series with eleven wickets, the best by an England bowler, including 6-51 as England made New Zealand follow-on in Wellington. After looking miserable with the bat for his first three innings, he also played a stunning innings of six off 77 deliveries as England barely hung on in Auckland.

Steven Finn – 5
Finn struggled through much of the series as he appeared to have trouble adjusting to his new run up and was noticeably down on pace. He finally managed to find a troubling length in Auckland and took six wickets in the first innings as England tried to keep New Zealand to a reasonable score. His main contribution was actually with the bat as he scored a fifty as nightwatchman in the first Test.

James Anderson – 4
Especially by Anderson’s lofty standards, this was a poor series. He struggled to get the ball to consistently swing and like most of the seamers bowled consistently too short. He still ended up with ten wickets, but in generally uninspiring fashion.

Monty Panesar – 3
Panesar only played in this series because Swann was ruled out at the last second with his chronic elbow injury. He will be remembered in this series for his contribution with the bat. He and Prior saw out the last few overs in Auckland and his struggle to make his ground after a tight single may be the iconic image of that Test. It should not disguise the fact that he did next to nothing with the ball, however, and may find himself down the pecking order come the summer.

Jonny Bairstow – 0
Bairstow may be the most unfortunate man on the tour. He came into the last Test as Pietersen’s replacement having not played in the only warmup and thus having not played any first-class cricket since being in the same situation in the second Test in India. He can hardly be faulted for making only nine runs in two innings.

New Zealand 0-0 England review

It was only thanks to the last day heroics of Ian Bell, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Monty Panesar that England avoided losing a first series in New Zealand in nearly thirty years. England did not have a good series overall and in some respects never seemed to really get going. They started the series disastrously by succumbing to 162 all out on a very flat pitch and although they then batted very well to save that Test, they were helped by losing four sessions to the rain. They did play well in the second Test, but could not take their only chance to force a result before the rains set in.

England’s batting, although being what saved them on the last day, really let them down in this series. None of the pitches were in any way minefields and there was no excuse at all for being bowled out so cheaply in Dunedin. They can at least point to some swing in Auckland, but there was still not enough to justify the ensuing collapse. New Zealand bowled well throughout the series, but it was not until the last Test that they actually looked threatening on their own merits. England simply batted very poorly in one innings and fairly poorly in another and in a three Test series that is going to be problematic. The lack of preparation may have been partly to blame; there was only one first-class match ahead of the series and when Jonny Bairstow had to come in for the third Test he did so having not played a first-class match since the second Test in India.

But whilst that may explain some of the team performance and that of some of the players, it does not explain all of it and it is hard to escape the notion that England were simply not up for it. The way the team behaved in the field when they were behind in the third Test was a disgrace and even though they came back to show a lot of heart and fight on the last day it spoke volumes about their attitude. This is something on which Alastair Cook will need to work as captain; it has happened before when he was leading the ODI side and it is hard to imagine that it would have happened under Strauss. It is still early in his captaincy and I think he will improve, but he needs to do so quickly and this is a further suggestion that Strauss retired too soon.

England’s bowling was better than the batting, but not by as much as England would have liked. In addition to the poor attitude displayed in the final Test, they struggled throughout to make the ball swing as much as they would have liked and in the last Test they were actually outbowled by New Zealand’s seamers. The pitches were generally flat and the Kookaburra ball does not swing as much as the Dukes one does, but they also bowled consistently too short and this was exposed in Auckland. It was a very lacklustre performance overall.

For all of England’s faults, however, New Zealand played quite well. Brendan McCullum, controversy about his appointment aside, led them very well and was comfortably the better of the two captains. The seamers bowled consistently well on generally unhelpful pitches (though it was not until the third Test that they really excelled in the manner that I had been expecting) and the team not only fought hard with the bat in the second Test, they batted very well in the first and last Tests to put themselves into dominant positions twice. I was keen before the series to see how their new openers would get on and although Peter Fulton looked scrappy at the start he finished the series with back-to-back centuries. Forming consistently large partnerships will still take some work, but this does look like the best opening pair that New Zealand have had in some time. They certainly deserved the share of the spoils that they got and probably deserved to win the series. Without question they deserve to be ranked higher than eighth (which was true before the series began too) and the fact that this result has not moved them up the table shows just how poor the ICC rankings can be.

Although I don’t like the back-to-back series in general, in this case it will be very interesting to see if New Zealand can continue to play well in the return leg in May. It is fair to expect that England will be better and that New Zealand will be faced with a much tougher task. It should tell us a lot about whether this New Zealand team can play more consistently well and challenge teams away from home. For England, it will be vital to put in a strong show ahead of the Ashes.

Auckland, day four: England 90-4

The hope of last night that England might bowl very well and give themselves a chance for a remarkable victory was always likely to be a vain one. But it would have been nice if England had made an effort to do something to resist New Zealand in the morning session. Not only would it have been better for the supporters, they might not have found themselves in the rather parlous position that they do now. Instead, England came out without any clear plan and from there the wheels came off very quickly. Not only was there not an attempt to force more wickets, there did not even seem to be a coherent attempt to choke off the runs at first. The field setting was just odd. By the time Monty Panesar had bought the wicket of Doug Brownlie New Zealand were already looking comfortable and the arrival of Brendan McCullum saw them tee off. Not only did the bowlers look helpless and Cook clueless, there did not seem to be any effort made by any of them to do something. They just sat back and seemed to take the view that eventually he would declare. That, far more than the actual result, was the most infuriating aspect of England’s performance. All notion of discipline appeared to collapse and an utter shambles was the result. It was a disgraceful effort and the worst I have seen from England recently.

It may be harsh on Cook, who is still a very new captain, but it is hard to imagine that happening in such an important match under Strauss’s leadership. As bad as things got in the UAE, England never appeared to just give up in the field and in fact did a very good job of keeping it close. Even the following summer as South Africa piled on the runs at the Oval, the worst that could be said was that England did not appear to have a plan, but they kept coming in and at least tried to bowl well enough to keep the runs down. Strauss’s captaincy was not perfect, but he never lost control in the field. Cook will no doubt grow into the role, but right now this is very reminiscent of England’s 0-5 ODI series in India in late 2011. The irrelevance of the pyjama-only tour meant that it did not attract a lot of attention, but Cook had trouble keeping everyone in line then too. With a long double Ashes series coming up, it is something at which Cook and Flower need to look.

England were given 143 overs to bat out the draw, something which they have only managed three times before in their history. (And one of those was the Timeless Test in Durban in 1939.) They have made a decent effort, but Cook and Trott both went to loose shots after getting set. Both batsmen really ought to have gone on after getting set and both played very uncharacteristic shots. It leaves England in an almost impossible position. Ian Bell has batted doggedly for eight runs off an Boycott-esque 89 deliveries, but England do not have a lot of batting left. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow are both inexperienced and short of time in the middle. Matt Prior is very good at counterattacking, but England need crease occupation. Stuart Broad is hopelessly short of confidence and throwing his bat at everything. And Steven Finn is already in and out as nightwatchman.

To say that the odds are against England would be a massive understatement. They would need one of their young players to play the sort of innings that Faf du Plessis did for South Africa in Adelaide, but it looks almost vanishingly unlikely. New Zealand will complete a famous and deserved victory tomorrow, probably before tea.

Auckland, day three: New Zealand 35-3

Today was very probably the day that England lost a Test series to New Zealand. They resumed on 50-2, trailing by 393, and never got going. The New Zealand seamers bowled well, got the ball to swing and bowled England out for 204 before Brendan McCullum declined to enforce the follow-on.

New Zealand bowled consistently well all day; it was their best day with the ball in the series and actually the first time we have seen what I expected from them before the series. They pitched the ball up and got the ball to swing both ways and the one that came back in caused no end of problems for England. Four of the top seven were out lbw to inswingers, two each to Trent Boult and Tim Southee. England should have batted better, but really what today shows is that they ought to have bowled better on the first day. I said at the time that they were consistently too short, but today the New Zealand bowlers showed just how much more effective the fuller length is. This has also led to a lot of remarks on Twitter about the pitch not being as flat as was originally claimed. (Generally these have taken the form of snide remarks.) But the movement has generally not come from the pitch, but from the air. It may be that the conditions were not conducive on the first day, but it cannot be disputed that New Zealand did bowl better than England did. The pitch itself is still generally flat, though it is starting to keep a bit low and maybe break up a bit.

Alastair Cook’s decision to bowl first is now looking a very poor one indeed and although it is hard to say now that things would not have turned out better for England if they had batted first, I still don’t think it was as bad of a decision as some others do. Certainly there are some who put England’s predicament at Cook’s feet, but the fact that the tactics did not come off does not by itself mean that it was wrong to take the risk. The fact is that England have been outplayed and there is nothing to suggest that they would not have collapsed if they had batted first.

But at least in the immediate future there the spotlight will have shifted to the decision by McCullum not to enforce the follow-on. England were bowled out still 239 in arrears, but more importantly having lost their last four wickets for just four runs between them. What had been a faint hope of saving the follow-on had very suddenly vanished and England were reeling. The decision to enforce the follow-on seemed obvious, but McCullum opted against it and it is not immediately clear why. Even if England had gone back out to bat and put on a decent second innings total it is very hard to see a way they could have really put New Zealand under pressure. Even a score of 400 would have only given New Zealand 160 to win and probably only left a session and a half in which to try to bowl them out. A few quick wickets and the match would have been effectively over. As it is, New Zealand batted again and it is England who took three quick wickets and now have a faint sniff of hope.

it is only a very faint sniff, mind. But New Zealand were at one point 8-3 in their second innings and finished the day by scoring four runs in the last eight overs. England were forced to attack by the match position and unsurprisingly it was a better strategy than what they had been employing. Even though New Zealand recovered to 35-3 by stumps, England have effectively taken 23 overs out of the match as New Zealand were too tied down to really get anywhere. New Zealand will probably want at least another hundred and maybe even a few more (160 would make the target an even 400) and at the rate they are going that will take almost two sessions and there is still an outside chance that England could bowl them out and maybe find themselves with a reasonable target. It is very unlikely, of course, but there is no doubt that New Zealand would be happier if England were only trying to escape with a draw.

The more optimistic of England supporters might actually think back to the Old Trafford Test of 2008. In that match England were bowled out for 202, barely avoiding the follow-on, but responded by bowling New Zealand out for 114 and chasing just under 300 to win by six wickets. England have a tougher ask this time as they trail by sixty more runs and even if they did not would still be strong underdogs, but it is something about which to think.

Auckland, day one: New Zealand 250-1

Before the start of the third Test there was a lot of discussion about how the pitch would play. New Zealand captain Brendan McCullum said that New Zealand would be playing to win the Test and the suggestion was that the pitch would have more life in it than what were relatively flat wickets in Dunedin and Wellington. That has not been the case at least on the first day, however. The wicket is very flat and apparently quite hard and does not look likely to break up. The expected seam movement was not present at all and the bowlers struggled to get movement through the air.

The flatness of the wicket certainly played a part in New Zealand racking up such a good score, but England did not bowl well at all for most of the day. They were far too short in the first session especially and did not really work out where to bowl until late in the day. They were especially poor immediately after tea; they came out late from the interval and seemed utterly uninterested. New Zealand had already put up a very good score, but with England needing to take wickets to try to drag the match back it was very annoying to see. England did not get a wicket in the session, although they did sharpen up after the drinks interval and managed to beat the bat a few times with the second new ball. It was not enough and certainly well too late, however.

England also had to contend with the problem of the absurdly short boundaries at Eden Park. It is a rugby ground and although it is not quite the standard rectangle of others, it is still noticeably shorter straight than square of the wicket and far too short to play Test cricket on. Peter Fulton had a top edge carry 53 metres and over the boundary. Friends of mine playing in the park have hit the ball farther*. The ground also has a capacity suited for rugby matches which means that it was less than a third full and had no atmosphere at all. Hopefully that will improve over the weekend, but even if it does this should be the last Test that Eden Park hosts. There should certainly be Test cricket in Aukland, but only if they build a cricket ground.

The state of the match means that Cook has come in for a lot of criticism for his decision to bowl first, but that criticism is premature at best and possibly unfounded. The pitch is good for batting, but there are other things to consider beside the first innings (and especially just the first day). The question is whether England will be in a better position having batted second than if they had batted first and with the pitch not showing any signs of deteriorating there is every chance that England will match whatever New Zealand score. (And remember that New Zealand have only scored 250 so far; there is still time for England to claw things back.) If the first innings scores are roughly parity than the decision to bowl first will certainly have been the right one because England will still have a chance to win with New Zealand batting third, they probably would not if New Zealand batted last. Of course, if the pitch does break up and New Zealand get a decent first innings lead then it will certainly have been the wrong decision for Cook. But either way we will not know until tomorrow at the earliest, so it is not possible to say right now that the decision was the right or wrong one.

*That’s not an exaggeration; we measured one of the sixes hit at seventy metres.

Wellington, day two: New Zealand 66-3

The second day of the Wellington Test was a much better one for New Zealand, especially with the ball. I said after day one that their bowlers had to find something more than what they had been showing and they stepped up to take eight English wickets for fewer than two hundred runs. It was certainly not the day for which England were hoping, but they did do enough to get the score up to 465 all out, which is certainly still formidable.

A lot of the credit to that score must go to Matt Prior and Steven Finn. After Ian Bell and Joe Root had got out to a pair of poor shots in the morning, Prior came in and started to steady the ship and after Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad departed in quick succession in the afternoon Finn kept him company. The pair came together with the score 374-7 and England still some way short of a good total. But Finn survived for 82 deliveries whilst Prior scored quickly from the other end and the pair put on 83 runs in just under twenty overs. Finn got a bit of criticism during his innings for the slow rate at which he scored, but it was entirely unjustified. Prior can and did score quite quickly and what he needed was a foil to prevent him from running out of partners. Finn provided an excellent one and deserves credit for the way he hung around.

Four hundred and sixty-five was still not as many as England would have liked, but impressive bowling in the evening session was enough to tilt the day into their favour. There was pace in the pitch and a bit of movement through the air, though the seamers did get a bit carried away with the bounce and started bowling a bit too short. This allowed New Zealand to put together a decent partnership for the second wicket, but Broad was the first one to find the right length and promptly took two wickets in as many deliveries.

The forecast for the last two days of the Test has improved slightly, but England will still want to hurry things along. New Zealand need another two hundred runs exactly to avoid the follow-on and England’s best chance to force a victory is to make sure that the Kiwis don’t get there. England will probably need to get amongst the wickets early tomorrow and they can get McCullum out before he can rescue his side again.

Wellington, day one: England 267-2

The first day of this Test was almost as good for England as the first day (of play, not the one where it rained) at Dunedin was bad. England will be grateful to Brendan McCullum for either not having the faith in his own lineup to bat first or for badly misreading the pitch, but either way he decided to bowl first upon winning the toss. After ninety overs on a pitch with little side-to-side movement and not as much pace as had been expected, that decision looks like the wrong one and very possibly a disastrously wrong one.

It has actually been an odd couple of days for McCullum. He said yesterday that he would bowl first if he won the toss and was apparently sincere in that statement. He also paid a compliment to Alastair Cook which was subsequently blown well out of proportion. He said that in his current form, Cook was probably the best batsman since Don Bradman. This was, inexplicably, taken as comparing Cook with Bradman despite very clearly saying that Cook is not as good as Bradman. Also overlooked was the important caveat of current form. And Cook’s form coming into the Test was four centuries in five Tests, certainly worthy of comparison to any batsman of the recent era. McCullum was certainly not helped by the press, but the fact so few bothered to actually see what he said blew what should have been an uncontroversial compliment out of proportion.

In the long run, however, it will be his decision to bowl first that causes him the most regret. His bowlers had not had a lot of time to recuperate from bowling for nearly two days at Dunedin and they were faced with another tough task here. Although Cook played a loose shot to depart fairly cheaply, neither Jonathan Trott or Nick Compton were in a mood to oblige. Both played very patiently, did not try to force the tempo and made sure that England got a good platform set. They actually did not get particularly bogged down either, despite their reputations. England’s run rate was well above three an over when Compton departed and by then the two had put on over two hundred together.

The Barmy Army started singing that England were halfway there when the 250 came up near the end of the day, but England should actually be aiming well over five hundred. From this platform and with the batsmen not only still in but still to come, 550 is certainly possible and perhaps even six hundred. The biggest issue is time. Run rate is not normally a major issue in the first innings of a Test match, but there is rain strongly forecast for the fourth and fifth days and it looks like a guarantee that the match will be shortened. England will have to put New Zealand in at some point tomorrow; if Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Joe Root and Matt Prior can score as quickly as they usually do then England will have time to put on three hundred before declaring very late in the day, but there is a chance that the attempt will result in a collapse and a sub-500 score. It is probably a chance England have to take, however.

It is certainly too early to suggest that New Zealand cannot win this Test, but they are in a position where they will probably have to play for a draw and hope for an opportunity to turn that into a win. But their bowlers have been disappointingly toothless after performing well recently and in the first innings of the series. They have had circumstances turn against them, but in the last 260 overs England have scored 688 runs for the loss of eight wickets. New Zealand are going to have to find something more than what they have been showing if they still want to pull off an upset.

Dunedin, day three: New Zealand 402-7

Day three was certainly a better day for England than day two was. The day was overcast and the seamers got a bit more help and especially once they got the second new ball in the afternoon. It wasn’t so good that England could get back into the match, however, and that is largely down to the efforts of Hamish Rutherford in the morning. He scored 171, four more than the entire English team, before departing to the first delivery of the second new ball and has almost single handedly given New Zealand their lead. Especially on debut, it was an enormously impressive innings. The next highest score for the Kiwis is only 55, though Brendan McCullum is 44 not out overnight.

That innings from McCullum is important also in it’s timing. He came in with New Zealand teetering a bit on 310-4 and it was then very quickly 326-6. New Zealand were certainly in danger of not getting the lead that they wanted and maybe not even a lead over two hundred. But McCullum scored his runs very quickly and often quite streakily whilst England kept the field up to attack and has scored better than a run-a-ball whilst getting the lead up to 235. It was particularly frustrating for England after they had done very well to get an opening, only to see it slam shut on them.

The drizzle and bad light meant that play was abandoned early again, which from this position will suit England. But the game has progressed so fast that even losing the better part of four sessions to the weather has not made the impact one would expect. New Zealand probably have time to bat a bit more in the morning, but McCullum should strongly consider declaring overnight. With the lead already 235, England will have to bat for most of the day just to reach parity and from there it will be more than a session into day five before they can make the match safe. New Zealand can make this task a bit harder for England by batting on, but I very much doubt it will be worth taking the additional time out of the match. The pitch is flat and expected to stay flat and New Zealand may want as much time as possible to bowl England out and possibly chase a target. The only reason for New Zealand to keep batting would be if they were worried about possibly losing the match, which is not even a vaguely realistic concern at this point.