Wellington: England go into their three-Test series against a new-look New Zealand line-up this week as firm favourites, despite slipping to a shock defeat in their final warm-up match. The tourists, second in the Test rankings, are expected to prove too strong for the lowly Black Caps as they gear up for back-to-back Ashes series against Australia, buoyed by a recent series win away to India.
The likes of star batsman Kevin Pietersen failed to fire in the three-wicket defeat on Saturday at the hands of a New Zealand XI, England's first loss in a first-class tour game in nearly seven years. But Alastair Cook's men are firm favourites with the bookmakers to come out on top against a Black Caps side destabilised by injury and a recent change of captain in the series starting in Dunedin on Wednesday.
New Zealand, ranked eighth in Test cricket, have not won a series against England since 1999, with their sole series victory on home soil back in 1984. The home side come into the series after a drubbing in South Africa, where they lost both Tests by an innings, and they are still adjusting to the axing of Ross Taylor as captain in favour of Brendon McCullum late last year.
New Zealand were competitive in patches as they lost both the one-day and Twenty20 series against England 2-1 but coach Mike Hesson has acknowledged Test cricket remains his side's weakest form of the game. "We're a long way off the pace in Test cricket at the moment," he said before the touring England party arrived. We have to acknowledge that and we know we've got a lot of work to do. We don't have the depth that we have in other forms of the game so we have to make sure we select the right people and show faith in them to grow their game. That doesn't happen overnight."
Debutant Hamish Rutherford and Peter Fulton are expected to open the batting for New Zealand with Martin Guptill injured and Brendon McCullum moving down the order. Taylor will return to the Test arena for the first time since his demotion while Daniel Vettori, Chris Martin and Mitchell McClenaghan join Guptill on the injured list. Paceman Doug Bracewell is also reportedly under an injury cloud after cutting his foot in an off-field incident.
England are set to welcome James Anderson and Steven Finn back into the bowling attack after they were rested for the tour match in Queenstown. Coach Andy Flower did not appear perturbed after the loss, describing England's performance as "rusty", and indicating Nick Compton would not be punished for his returns of 21 and one.
Asked if 22-year-old Joe Root could replace Compton as Cook's opening partner, Flower replied: "You've got to remember Joe Root has played one Test match. I think everyone should keep a little calm about his prospects. We look forward to him having a very successful career but he's got to take it one step at a time."
The second Test starts in Wellington on March 14, with the third and final match in Auckland from March 22.