These are still Test matches. New Zealand and England players will still be tested to the extreme. Winning will still require a team to play some excellent cricket, and for the fans there is plenty to look forward to.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” - Ecclesiastes 1:2
An existential crisis is a moment of doubting the meaning of existence or the purpose of life. It is an experience that can be had by a person, but also by a group or organisation.
In some ways it is a state that fans of New Zealand and England find themselves in with this series. In the past it would have been called a “Test series,” but now it is a “Test series that doesn’t count towards the World Test Championship.” The introduction of the World Test Championship has impacted on the meaningfulness of this series.
If a series does not carry any points in the championship, does it actually matter?
If it was part of a long running tradition or rivalry then it certainly would. An Ashes series would be eagerly awaited for both the tradition and the rivalry. But for English fans, New Zealanders are “like Australians, just with better manners and worse cricketers.” There is neither the rivalry nor the tradition of competition. The matches between the two sides were extremely one-sided until the late 1970s, and even since then, England have won 21 and lost 9 in the last 40 years against New Zealand.
England showed how important this tour was to them by initially naming an interim coach for it, so that it didn’t distract from the important series. They then confirmed the appointment of Chris Silverwood as the coach, and so the interim title has been dropped.
It is, in some ways, a series without many consequences. But that is also leading to some of the more interesting nuances. There is room for experimentation.
New Zealand have, somewhat surprisingly, left out their two best red ball spin bowlers (Ajaz Patel and William Somerville), instead opting for two spin bowling allrounders (Mitchell Santner and Todd Astle). They also picked Lockie Ferguson in the squad, and made a large announcement about his selection, sparking considerable excitement from local fans.
This is not the first Test squad that Ferguson has been named in, but he's yet to play a Test. That fact is actually somewhat remarkable in itself.
Since the start of the 2016/17 season, Ferguson has averaged just under 19 runs per wicket in the Plunket Shield (NZ regional competition). He’s done that despite playing for Auckland, and so played roughly half his cricket on the very batting friendly surfaces at Eden Park’s outer oval. The other fast bowlers in the Auckland squad have averaged close to double what Ferguson has achieved in the same matches.
Those statistics would have seen him walk into any New Zealand side in the past, but there is significant competition for him in the squad. In the past two years the three frontline seamers (Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner) have all averaged under 25 with a strike rate below 50. Collectively they have averaged roughly the same as Wasim Akram or Michael Holding did over their careers. They are basically undroppable, meaning that Ferguson has had to wait his turn.
For the first Test again, Kane Williamson has announced that the bowling line up will probably be a familiar one, but one poor performance from one of them may well mean that Ferguson's turn will come up in the second Test in Hamilton. Mitchell Santner has been named as the sole spinner.
A four-pronged attack would have been probably more fitting with the time of year. These tests are very early in the season for New Zealand.
There have only been three Tests ever played in New Zealand in November. In those, there were 11 completed innings, and 7 of them saw a team score fewer than 250. It tends to be a good time of year to be a pace bowler. There are some clubs that even keep two sets of statistics, one for matches before Christmas, and one for matches afterwards, when the pitches start to settle down.
However, this series is being seen as a warm-up to a degree by both sides. For England this is leading up to the South Africa series, and for New Zealand this series has been bracketed with the Australian tour (with a single squad named for both). As a result, New Zealand Cricket may be asking the grounds crew at Tauranga and Hamilton to prepare harder, bouncier pitches, more in keeping with the sort of pitches that are normally found in Australia and South Africa.
For the crew at Bay Oval in Tauranga, this is a particularly important Test. They have publicly stated their desire to be known as New Zealand’s premier cricketing venue, with the charm of sitting on a grass bank, similar to the traditional grounds such as the Basin Reserve, but with a much larger capacity and extremely good lights. Getting the pitch right is probably the final piece in the puzzle, and there will be a lot of interest to see how well they do in that regard for the first Test.
England is also likely to have all eyes on their opening bowlers. There seems to be a generational switch in progress in their line-up, with Stuart Broad and James Anderson starting to look over their shoulders at Jofra Archer and Sam Curran.
This series will also provide a stern test for the new English opening partnership with the bat of Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley. New Zealand have not been an easy place for opening batsmen, with only South Africa proving to regularly be a harder place for openers to tour. Silverwood has asked them to take their time and play themselves in, which is generally a good approach, but against an experienced and patient New Zealand attack might just end up allowing the bowlers to set them up.
The series may be meaningless in regards to the Test championship, but it is anything but for the players. For some of them careers are on the line.
There may not be the same consequences for either team as a whole, but these are still Test matches. The players will still be tested to the extreme. Winning will still require a team to play some excellent cricket, and for the fans there is plenty to look forward to.
If the prospect of some high quality cricket is diminished by the lack of point scoring opportunities, then perhaps too much is being made of the championship.
All sport is trivial to a degree, but it is an enjoyable triviality. And it is particularly enjoyable when two even teams play a Test series.
“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun.” - Ecclesiastes 8:15.
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