Herald cricket writers Dylan Cleaver, Niall Anderson, and Andrew Alderson run the rule over the various intrigues surrounding the Black Caps before the start of the first test against England at Lord's on Wednesday night (NZT).
1. No mucking around: What changes would you like to see from the New Zealand side that beat Pakistan in Christchurch in January by an innings and plenty?
Cleaver: Devon Conway for Tom Blundell, Neil Wagner for Trent Boult, Colin de Grandhomme or Doug Bracewell for Matt Henry.
My XI would be: Conway, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, Daryl Mitchell, BJ Watling, de Grandhomme/Bracewell, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Wagner.
Alderson: Will Young for Tom Blundell, Neil Wagner for Matt Henry, Ajaz Patel for the absent Trent Boult.
My XI would be: Tom Latham, Young, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling, Daryl Mitchell, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Wagner, Patel.
Anderson: Devon Conway for Tom Blundell, Colin de Grandhomme for Daryl Mitchell, Doug Bracewell for Matt Henry, and Neil Wagner for Trent Boult.
My XI would be: Conway, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling, de Grandhomme, Bracewell, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Wagner.
2. Why (or perhaps why not) Devon Conway... what happened to the golden rule of not changing a winning team unless forced to?
Cleaver: I'd chuck him in on the back of this simple premise – he's one of the best five batsmen in the country. What's to be gained by holding the 29-year-old back any longer? But it's a good position to be in. Tom Blundell hasn't done much wrong but his future is behind the sticks and at No 6 or 7, and Will Young is a class player who has scored two recent centuries as an opener against the Dukes ball in England. Conway is better, though.
Alderson: Conway's earned the right to open or bat anywhere in the top order due to an avalanche of domestic runs. However, so has Will Young over a longer period, hindered only by the obstacle of New Zealand's greatest three-four test combination. The Central Districts batsman has also shown the initiative to get a contract with Durham and has scored two centuries opening in May. Given the acceptance Tom Blundell's now a middle-order batsman and the keeper-in-waiting, captain Kane Williamson's penchant for loyalty makes Young a logical choice.
Anderson: That rule has never held any logical weight for me. While there are genuine chemistry and morale concerns for changing your team regularly, the desire to not change a winning team is also how Jeet Raval opens the batting for several tests too long. Not playing Conway – who has the game to become a great despite debuting at 29 - because of a desire to keep the faith with Blundell, who averages 27 since his century at the MCG and has some technical flaws that bowlers are exposing, would be incomprehensible.
3. What is your thinking behind your choice of all-rounder?
Cleaver: I've solved a conundrum by picking both the seam-bowling all-rounders, though I will qualify that by saying at international level I view Mitchell as a batsman who can bowl a bit. In further qualification I have bracketed de Grandhomme with Bracewell – he only gets the nod if he is fit enough to play as a genuine fourth seamer.
I cannot justify picking a spinner for the sake of it. I just can't see Ajaz Patel or Mitchell Santner being a factor at Lord's (and I'm not sure Rachin Ravindra is a genuine option yet). I'll bat Mitchell at six – his heady displays at the crease for his country have blown me away – BJ Watling at seven and de Grandhomme at eight. With Kyle Jamieson below him, that's a mighty lower middle order that could come in handy if the conditions play tricky.
Alderson: The instinctively competitive Mitchell has never looked out of place since debuting. He's also coming off a maiden test century, albeit in relatively comfortable circumstances against Pakistan in Christchurch. His bowling, with one wicket from 36 overs in four tests raises questions, but 17 Plunket Shield wickets at 17.64 for victorious Canterbury last season assuages some of that doubt. It depends on how much Williamson believes de Grandhomme has returned to match fitness after a foot injury that blighted the majority of his summer. The value of his swaggering batting with an average of 37.03, and his ability to seam the ball for 47 wickets at 31.63 cannot be underestimated in England.
Anderson: With respect to Kyle Jamieson's batting, I have picked two – de Grandhomme and Bracewell. De Grandhomme should be an automatic selection given the supreme balance he provides. Despite hand-wringing from traditionalists, de Grandhomme's averages are exceptional, and to reuse an over-flattering comparison, are the same as Ben Stokes'. While de Grandhomme performs better at home than overseas, English conditions are likely to be far more fitting to his game than, say, the UAE, and the swing and seam on offer should make his medium-pacers a significant weapon.
Until Boult returns, Bracewell gets the nod over Henry as the fourth seamer (de Grandhomme the fifth) as I have yet to see any evidence that Henry is a test-level bowler – 13 tests at an average of 51 is a decent sample size – while Bracewell deserves another crack at the top level, having taking 24 first-class wickets at 24 last year and averaging 32 with the bat for his career.
I don't see Daryl Mitchell as a test all-rounder, and while his batting has been excellent to start his test career, having a legitimate fifth bowling option is of more value than a batting upgrade, especially in my surely-won't-be-used lineup, which has batting depth all the way down the order.
4. For those of you who have not picked a spinner - sorry, the Good Captain does not count - will we see one at Edgbaston and/or Southampton, and how the hell will NZ avoid punishment for slow over rates?
Cleaver: Yes, I think a spinner will come in for the second test partly because Edgbaston can turn and partly in preparation for a potential role at Southampton. (In truth, they'll probably pick one for Lord's too, but this is my team so I'm taking liberties). On balance, they'll probably have to go with Mitchell Santner. In modern cricket, lower-order runs are crucial and I don't think you can go into the WTC with, potentially, Southee, Patel, Wagner, and Boult as your eight, nine, ten, jack. Do I think Santner is a better bowler than Patel? No, but he can plug up an end, fields brilliantly, and has ability with the bat.
My over rate problem is solved with a little bit of Williamson and a lot more of de Grandhomme, who wheels through his overs at a good clip because he doesn't care about things like field settings.
Alderson: I'm inclined to play a specialist in Ajaz Patel to ensure all bowling options are covered. The ground staff at Southampton will be under scrutiny to ensure the pitch provides for seam and spin in the inaugural World Test Championship final. Patel has built a pedigree in his eight tests for bowling New Zealand to victory in the fourth innings, as demonstrated twice against Pakistan in the UAE.
Anderson: While I haven't picked a spinner, nobody in their right mind would listen to me and I expect the Black Caps will opt for one of their spin options for the first test, at the expense of a seamer.
Of the three venues, Edgbaston is historically the most spin-friendly, so you'll probably see one used there, while Southampton could be quite the dilemma – world-class spinners like Ravichandran Ashwin will be dangerous and I'd suspect India would want to play Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in tandem. On the other hand, Mitchell Santner, Ajaz Patel, and Rachin Ravindra are not world-class spinners and including one of them would surely come at the expense of one of Boult, Southee, Wagner, Jamieson or de Grandhomme, all of whom have stellar reasons to be included.
That will probably be the toughest call Williamson and Gary Stead have to make on this tour.
5. Anybody under more pressure than usual to perform?
Cleaver: Ross Taylor for well-documented reasons, but no more so than Watling. The keeper is the Little Engine Who Could, but he seems to have run out of steam with the bat. Knowing how team-focused and unselfish he is, the thought of these three tests being awarded to him as a valedictory gift will go against everything he stands for. He needs runs, because we know Blundell has them in him.
Alderson: Ross Taylor. The senior pro has one half-century – 70 against Pakistan during the Boxing Day match – in his last 11 completed test innings. This is a prime opportunity for the 37-year-old to reiterate his value to the squad. His statistically motivated mind will also be driven by the prospect of a maiden appearance on Lord's century honours board.
Anderson: The aforementioned dilemma might put some pressure on the Black Caps' four-headed fast bowling monster that proved so effective in New Zealand conditions, as any slip in form could see them dropped in favour of a better-balanced bowling attack.
Aside from that, I don't think there's much pressure in the short term. Ross Taylor and BJ Watling have made one fifty apiece in their last 12 test innings, but it would be very unlike the conservative Black Caps to drop one of their stalwarts.
6. Trent Boult... big loss?
Cleaver: Yes, I think he is. Cricket is a game that can be overburdened by dry statistics but there are certain chemical factors, intangibles if you will, that cannot be discounted. New Zealand is a better side with Boult taking the new ball. Southee is a better bowler when Boult's at the other end. Williamson is a better skipper with Boult on the field et cetera. Even when Boult is not at his best, I'd take him in a heartbeat over Doug Bracewell, Matt Henry, or Jacob Duffy.
Alderson: For the Lord's test? No, given the quality of depth. For the WTC final? Yes. The presence of the country's greatest left-arm opening bowler is paramount, given his experience against India, and particularly if injury strikes Tim Southee, Neil Wagner or Kyle Jamieson in the interim.
Anderson: Absolutely - one of the core components of the New Zealand seam bowling success of late (green wickets aside) has been the variations and different skillsets provided by the Boult/Southee/Wagner/Jamieson quartet. Chop off one head of the beast and the rest will be impacted, with even a minor change in plans potentially having a noted impact on the success of bowling in partnerships. Whether it be Henry, Bracewell or a spinner replacing Boult for the first test, it may take some time for the bowlers to gel as a combination, as neither Henry nor Bracewell resemble a like-for-like replacement.
7. Anything to fear in this England team?
Cleaver: You can make a decent argument that James Anderson and Stuart Broad are the greatest new-ball attack in history, with more than 1100 wickets between them. I personally would not make that argument, but I won't condemn you if you want to.
Alderson: The current side are consistently a threat at home, especially boasting one of test cricket's most long-serving new-ball partnerships in Anderson and Broad. Captain Joe Root might carry a disproportionate share of batting responsibility in a side missing the rested Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, and the injured Ben Stokes. New Zealand World Cup final nemesis Jofra Archer's also absent after elbow surgery.
Anderson: Definitely. While there's a long list of notable absentees – Stokes, Jofra Archer, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Ben Foakes, Sam Curran – there is still plenty of class in this side, with Mark Wood, Anderson and Broad one of the best-performed seam attacks in the world, and Joe Root anchoring a batting lineup littered with young talent.
Some of those names may be unfamiliar, and would likely struggle if this series was held in New Zealand, but home advantage is becoming an increasingly dominant factor in deciding test matches, and after struggling overseas the likes of Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope should perform better in familiar conditions.
8. The hosts seem to be treating the home summer as an extended dress rehearsal for their Ashes tour. Is that disrespectful to New Zealand?
Cleaver: Yes, it really is, but here's the thing: with five test victories and 30 defeats in 54 tests on English soil across 84 years, I'm not sure we can puff our chests out and holler in righteous indignation.
Alderson: England host both potential world test champions this summer. Underestimate the opposition - and an unforgiving cricket public – at your peril.
Anderson: It is – but it's not singularly disrespectful to New Zealand. Just look at this quote from England coach Chris Silverwood.
"The summer of test cricket will be fascinating. Playing the top two teams in the world, in New Zealand and India, is the perfect preparation for us as we continue to improve and progress towards an Ashes series in Australia at the back end of the year."
So…. playing the best two teams in the world will be perfect preparation for playing the third-best team in the world! That's like me saying covering these three tests will be perfect preparation to cover the T20s against Bangladesh.
While I understand the premise, there could probably be a strong analysis done on what this Ashes obsession does to England's psyche and investment when playing in these clearly less-important test series, and similarly, how it could have impacted their failure to make the WTC final. Fortunately, though, this roundtable is already way too long and I've got to wrap this thing up.
9. What is the greatest test performance by a New Zealander at Lord's - and why?
Cleaver: I'm not buying the argument that it has to be in a win: I missed the VHS release of John Bracewell's 110 at Trent Bridge in 1986, but I've seen Nathan Astle fling the ball into the stands at Christchurch on the way to 222 about 73 times. It has to be Martin Donnelly's 206 and I don't think it is close. The historic context of the '49ers, the quality of the innings if contemporary reports are to be believed, and the fact that Donnelly did a Babe Ruth at lunch on the second day and called it (his paraphrased words were: "Don't worry Skip [Walter Hadlee], I've got this"), mark this out as something a bit special. If there was a fourth, let alone a fifth day, New Zealand might have pressed for their first test win.
Alderson: Victory is the key parameter in defining best performances. New Zealand's solitary 1999 triumph means Chris Cairns' six for 77 to help dismiss England for 186 in the first innings, and Matt Horne, whose six-hour, body-blow laden 100 gave them a lead of 172, take joint honours. Dunedin-born Clarrie Grimmett's eight for 272 in Australia's 1930 Ashes win, Christchurch-born Andy Caddick's eight for 106 to beat Pakistan inside three days in 2001 and Christchurch-born Ben Stokes' 92, 101 and three wickets to turn the match against New Zealand in 2015 are controversial contenders. An honourable mention for Tim Southee's 10 for 108 in 2013, which was thwarted by his batsmen getting shredded for 68 in the chase for 239 to win.
Anderson: While I have fond memories of Martin Donnelly's 206 in 1949, I suspect I'm going to have to be an annoying absolutist here and pick someone from New Zealand's only test victory in 17 attempts at Lord's. So, come on down, [checks scorecard]… century-making Matt Horne? If you needed any indication that 1999 was a dark time for English cricket, losing at Lord's to a team whose openers were Horne and Matthew Bell and gave the new ball to Geoff Allott is probably enough proof.
10. How many times will the famous, yet slightly irritating, "Lord's slope" be mentioned by commentators in the first session?
Cleaver: Put it this way, if you're living in a student flat and are thinking of playing a drinking game to keep yourselves occupied, you'll be legless halfway through the first session if you knock back a shot every time it is mentioned. So, in the interests of public health and responsible drinking, please don't play that game.
Alderson: Depends on the number of wickets, but I'm going to take a punt on four with the variable slope measurement of 2 to 2.5m as a chaser. Expect a graphic of pitch mapping, too. Also, bank on the Father Time weather vane to cameo when the wind picks up.
Anderson: I read that Lord's is a "notoriously difficult" place to play for wicketkeepers, so I shall predict that any time debutant English keeper James Bracey lets one through for four byes, we'll be able to mark our bingo cards.
11. Do NZ win, lose, draw or tie (and lose on a boundary countback technicality)?
Cleaver: New Zealand fights back for a less-than-heroic draw after crumbling badly in the first innings in this rain-affected test.
Alderson: A New Zealand victory must be in prospect, given the relative strengths of the current sides. The answer to question nine might need reassessing.
Anderson: From my experience covering the Black Caps, something extraordinary will happen – a hat-trick, a triple century, a century off 30 balls from de Grandhomme, a collapse from 181-1 to 209 all out, a dropped catch somehow worse than Joe Denly's, so yes, the third tied test in cricket's history would make a lot of sense.
However, I found it quite surprising to see England installed as $1.83 favourites to NZ's $3.25 (the draw at $5), and I could see Anderson, Broad, Wood and Ollie Robinson being exceptionally dangerous in home conditions. So, England take a 1-0 lead in the series, and helpfully dampen expectations before the WTC final.