Each Test series has its own character and history, and success or failure is viewed quite differently. If Ashes victory is perceived as the pinnacle of English cricketing achievement, defeat to New Zealand, fairly or otherwise, seems to consistently symbolise the gloomy depths to which the England team have sunk. New Zealand, to the cricketing psyche, represents the lower cohort of Test sides. Lose, and England join them.
So it was in 1999, when New Zealand toured England. The decade was a bleak one for English cricket, and the hosts started the series with a poor record of five wins from their last twenty-two matches. Alec Stewart was dumped as captain before the series began. There was pressure to turns things around. After the final Test, at the Oval, which New Zealand won to take the series 2-1, England dropped to bottom in the unofficial Test rankings. The last Test match on English soil in the twentieth century ended with boos ringing around the Oval.
It is quite possible that England’s forthcoming two-match tour of New Zealand, which starts on the 22nd March, will be another low point, representing a side that is incapable of performing abroad. A shock defeat to Bangladesh away in 2016, a 4-0 thrashing by India in the same year and a 4-0 defeat in the last Ashes series, where the hosts were barely troubled, suggest a serious inability to adapt to different conditions. New Zealand, like South Africa, provides more congenial conditions for the English cricketer, but there is much to suggest that even the slight difference will prove too much for this England side.
New Zealand’s bowling attack offers some pace, which undid England’s batsmen during the Ashes. Against spin, English batsmen have been consistently inept abroad, with Nathan Lyon becoming the latest spinner to skittle through the England left-handers. The batting order is also littered with players who completely failed in the Ashes, such as James Vince and Mark Stoneman, who are under pressure to perform this time around. During the Ashes, they lacked the application necessary for Test cricket, especially in difficult foreign conditions and were too often out as a result of their own faults rather than good bowling.
The bowlers do not offer much more promise. If the ball is not swinging, the England attack will struggle to offer a bowler suitable to respond. None of the English bowlers even come close to 90 miles an hour. Mark Wood offers pace, but he is continually blighted by injury and is yet to last long enough for an extended run in the team.
The problem of selecting a quality spinner has also not been resolved. Moeen Ali was ineffective in Australia, leading many to question his place in the side. Mason Crane, the squad’s other spinner, may be promising, but his statistics make for even more embarrassing reading as he has, as yet, failed to crack the game’s longer formats. Jack Leach, who was superb during the Lions tour of the West Indies, continues to be overlooked despite his success in the County Championship and is not included in the squad.
A failure to manage foreign conditions among English players has been starkly displayed during the recent England Lions tour of the West Indies. This side, which should supply the next batch of England players, has been utterly dismantled by decent spin bowling. When English batsmen are exposed to anything other than gentle swing bowling, they capitulate, raising little hope before the series.
While Ben Stokes should return for the series and offer a substantial boost to the team’s balance and quality, it may well not be enough to reverse England’s miserable away form.