Auckland: England had one injury setback but avoided another on the eve of the deciding third Test against New Zealand which starts on Friday at Eden Park. Batsman Kevin Pietersen was ruled out of the match with a knee injury and will be sidelined for six weeks, missing the entire Indian Premier League in which he'd been expecting to take up a record $1.3 million contract.
Jonny Bairstow is likely to replace Pietersen, joining 22-year-old Joe Root in a young middle order. Fast bowler James Anderson has declared himself fit for the match after recovering from heel and back injuries which hampered him during the drawn second Test at Wellington.
Both the first and second Tests were rain-affected and ended in tame draws. The first day of the first Test was lost to rain and most of the last two days of the second Test were washed out, leaving the series to be decided on a drop-in pitch at Auckland.
Anderson has played a relatively muted role in the series so far and admitted his body was feeling the strain of his recent bowling duties. But he said he was ready to lift for the last Test in which No. 2-ranked England would press hard for a series victory over No. 8-ranked New Zealand.
"I don't think fresh is the word," he said. "But when you've got just one big Test left you always manage to find something a little bit extra in the tank, knowing we have got a few weeks off when we get home. I feel okay, and the rain probably helped in the end, getting an extra day off. It gave my body an extra bit of rest."
Anderson needs only five more to reach 300 wickets in Tests but said he would not let that milestone play too large a part in his approach to the match. "It would be a huge achievement, but first of all I've got to get some wickets," he said. "I think two is the most I've got in an innings on this trip, so that's the first thing I've got to try to do. I'm aware of it, but it's something, once I get into the game I won't be thinking about."
The weather forecast is for fine weather on all five days of the third Test, leaving a strong possibility of a result unless the pitch proves as lifeless as those at Dunedin and Wellington.
Eden Park is hosting a Test match for the first time in seven years and the properties of its pitch, which has provided a fast and true surface for one-day and Twenty20 series, are unknown over the course of five days. Whether the pitch will provide seam and bounce on the opening day and how much it will deteriorate over the remaining four days are factors which may only be revealed as the match proceeds.
The boundaries at the ground, venue for the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, are short by international standards and will demand additional accuracy from bowlers on both sides. Some in the England camp have been critical of the low and flat nature of the pitches for the first two Tests but Anderson wasn't bothered.
"Test pitches around the world are generally quite flat and you've got to work hard for your victories," he said. "It's no different out here. If we hadn't had rain in the first two games, there would probably have been a result. So you can't say they're not result pitches ... you've just got to work hard as a bowler to get 20 wickets in a game."
"The one-day pitch here (in Auckland) was a pretty good cricket wicket - a bit of bounce and pace in it for the seamers, not much seam movement. If we did manage to come away with a win, it'd be a fantastic winter for English cricket throughout all forms of the game."
A win would perhaps be a larger achievement for New Zealand, given their current standing in world cricket and the lows they hit during their tour to South Africa late last year. New Zealand lost both Tests against No. 1-ranked South Africa by an innings and were bowled out for only 45 before lunch on the first day of the first Test.
Captain Brendon McCullum said New Zealand was working hard to remedy their current low standing and their recent lack of consistency in Tests. "Since South Africa, the way we've responded in short version cricket and in this (test) series as well, against an outstanding English team, has been really pleasing," McCullum said. "The thing for us is to remain consistent in our performances and continue to trend in the right direction.
New Zealand: Hamish Rutherford, Peter Fulton, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Dean Brownlie, Brendon McCullum (captain), B.J. Watling, Tim Southee, Bruce Martin, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell.
England: Alastair Cook (captain), Nick Compton, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Matt Prior, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn, James Anderson, Monty Panesar.