It’s just eight days before England’s Test team start their new era under coach Brendon McCullum against New Zealand at Lord’s.
A welcome change of personnel, including a new captain in Ben Stokes, and home comforts will see England start the summer with optimism after a bruising winter that included a 4-0 Ashes hammering in Australia and that 1-0 defeat in the Caribbean that persuaded Joe Root, Stokes’ predecessor, to step down.
England’s run of one win in 17 Tests might not instil much confidence that things will turnaround overnight, especially with an injury crisis that sees eight bowlers unavailable for this upcoming three-Test series.
Yet New Zealand haven’t had things entirely their own way either, with six key players yet to join the squad, a Covid outbreak last week forcing three others to isolate and an opening warm-up match at Sussex that saw two of the four days washed out.
In short, the tourists are undercooked and even if their final warm-up match against a First-Class Counties XI in Chelmsford this week is blessed with glorious weather, they will still turn up at Lord’s next week far from match ready.
Given England’s form of late, New Zealand, the world Test champions, might not need to be at 100 per cent to still emerge victorious from that match.
It does, though, give McCullum the perfect opportunity to win his first Test in charge of England and start the summer off with a much-needed injection of positivity against the country of his birth.
England themselves know the dangers of turning up for a major overseas tour undercooked – just look at last winter’s Ashes when they went into the first Test in Brisbane on the back of two largely washed out intra-squad warm-up matches.
A lack of preparation ultimately wasn’t the reason why they performed so badly in Australia. But it certainly didn’t help.
New Zealand are a better side than the one England took to the Ashes and will go into this series with the confidence of winning in England just a year ago, when after a drawn Test at Lord’s they sealed a comprehensive eight-wicket win at Edgbaston.
Yet the disruption they’ve faced at the start of this tour has hardly been ideal. Five key players in Neil Wagner, Devon Conway, Daryl Mitchell, captain Kane Williamson and Tim Southee will join up with the squad in Essex on Wednesday.
Wagner and Williamson will be arriving after gruelling 25-hour flights from New Zealand after they were given time off for paternity leave.
Before that Williamson was involved in the Indian Premier League, as were Conway, Mitchell and Southee. Trent Boult, whose Rajasthan Royals team reached the IPL play-offs, is still in India.
It’s uncertain how many of the latecomers will take part in the warm-up match at Chelmsford but it’s fair to say New Zealand will not field their first-choice XI before Lord’s.
The fact so many key players will have had little red-ball cricket under their belts will be another hindrance.
At Lord’s, Williamson will also be playing his first Test since November after a long-standing elbow injury ruled him out of the entirety of New Zealand’s Test summer.
His team struggled without him, drawing home series against Bangladesh and South Africa, with defeat to the former at Mount Maunganui in January a result that shocked the cricketing world.
In all, since winning the World Test Championship against India at Southampton last June, New Zealand have won just two of the six Tests they have played.
They will still be very dangerous opponents, yet for England, this is the perfect time to take on the world Test champions.