Shall we talk about the cricket for a bit, then? Let’s park the timeline mining and the urge to be outraged by every less-than-savoury comment ever committed to the Twittersphere, and focus on the reason why such remarks from England’s senior sports stars are held to a higher standard than the rest of the poisonous soup that swills around that fetid site.
England’s cricketers are public figures – a fact that might have been easy to overlook in the past 12 months of bio-secure bubbling, but at Edgbaston this week, they can expect to feel once again the full roar (or at least, a 70% roar) of the Hollies Stand, as the sport continues its tiptoe back to normality with cricket’s largest crowd since the T20 Blast final in September 2019, when Edgbaston was once again the host with the most.
This year in the UK, only Leicester City’s FA Cup final win over Chelsea last month has been witnessed by more spectators than the 17,000 a day that will be permitted in Birmingham, and the euphoria of that occasion was palpable, even while the gaps in the stands remained gaping. All things being equal, this Test promises to be a celebration of cricket’s resilience and rebirth. But as we have been reminded over the course of the last few days, all things are far from equal right now.
Nevertheless, the occasion could also be a celebration of a different ilk for the indomitable James Anderson, who now seems to be ticking off a milestone a match as he revels in the “sexy phase” of his career, the phrase recently coined by Peter Moores to describe Stuart Broad’s similarly zen-like confidence in his methods and mien.
Given the eight-week gap until the first Test against India, there seems little reason to defer Anderson’s record-breaking 162nd Test appearance on the grounds of workload management, although it was also England’s stated aim before the series to use these games, which fall outside the World Test Championship remit, to expand their pool of potential Ashes performers. Either way, he’ll get there soon enough, and will do so with a seasoned assurance far removed from the raw rookie who tore in on debut at Lord’s 18 years ago, even as his internal monologue was insisting he “wasn’t good enough”.
New Zealand, too, are embracing the rest-and-rotation vibe. Some of their changes are enforced – most troublingly, the absence of their captain, the world’s No.1-ranked batter, Kane Williamson due to a long-standing elbow injury – but the rest are anticipated with the bigger picture in mind.
For all that Tom Latham, their stand-in skipper, recognises that victory in England would be a memorable achievement in its own right, the three-day gap to the World Test Championship final against India requires a pragmatic approach, particularly to their fast-bowling resources. After six years as one of the premier teams in world cricket, encompassing the heartache of two World Cup finals, this is a glorious opportunity to obtain a tangible reward for their ceaselessly high standards.
To that end, the first Test could hardly have gone better as a warm-up act. Devon Conway set New Zealand’s agenda with an obscenely assured debut, while there were sturdy workouts for three of the quicks who will spearhead their challenge for silverware, most notably Tim Southee with his third appearance on the Lord’s honours board (after two in the same match in 2013).
They would doubtless have liked to cap their dominance with a victory, but England chose not to engage with a teasingly weighted declaration on the final afternoon. It looked, to the uninitiated, like an opportunity squandered, but was more likely an accident waiting to happen – especially for a callow batting line-up that served up four ducks in their flaccid first innings.
“I still feel we made the right decision,” Joe Root said on the eve of the second Test, after reflecting on the criticism his side had received for their go-slow approach. “We turn up here, and we’ve got a chance to win the series.”
If that is to happen, however, improvements are a must for England, who at least showed a greater willingness to hunker down in their dour second innings, thanks to Dom Sibley, who shut up shop for another of his puritanically grim half-centuries. But first time out, Dan Lawrence and Zak Crawley both fell to the sort of impetuous drives that will have Jasprit Bumrah and Co. licking their lips (let alone Josh Hazlewood and friends) while James Bracey’s six-ball duck and cartwheeling off stump made for an uncompromisingly tough baptism.
On a practical level, too, England have been weakened by the absence of their best bowler from that first Test. Ollie Robinson‘s misdemeanours require attention, but with seven wickets in the match, and 42 vital first-innings runs to stave off a complete meltdown, his on-field contributions will not be forgotten, even if his off-field actions continue to dominate England’s narrative.
England: DLLLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand: DWWWW
In the spotlight
Rory Burns is one of the very few England cricketers who is enjoying life more in the current climate than he was at the start of the year. After losing his place (and his sense of humour) during the tour of India, Burns then had to navigate his way out of a more contemporary Twitter rumpus, following his ill-judged response to a tongue-in-cheek comment from the ex-England women’s player, Alex Hartley. In between whiles, however, he put his head down for Surrey to grind out seven fifty-plus scores in nine innings, and has now regained the right to be considered England’s premier opening batsman. His third Test century was a nuggetty masterpiece – last man out for 132 out of 275, a performance that glued the innings together when it briefly seemed a 200-plus deficit was on the cards. He has happy memories of Edgbaston too, with a maiden hundred on his last visit in the 2019 Ashes.
Tom Latham has some massive shoes to fill as Kane Williamson’s captaincy stand-in, but at the age of 29, and with nearly 4000 runs at a very healthy average of 41.97, there’s no time like the present for New Zealand’s vice-captain to step up to the higher role. Latham’s unassuming methods mask a steely temperament, although he hasn’t quite returned to the heights he reached in 2018-19, when he racked up five hundreds in eight Tests including a career-best 264 not out against Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the last of those hundreds was against England at Hamilton, meaning that each of New Zealand’s openers has reached three figures in their last two encounters with Root’s men. If Conway can pick up where he left off with his debut double-century at Lord’s, the new skipper will have all the more space to grow into his new responsibilities.
Robinson’s suspension means that Craig Overton is in line for his first Test cap since the 2019 Ashes, in that No.8 bowling allrounder role that has become rather crucial to England’s balance in the absence of Ben Stokes (not to mention Edgbaston’s own Chris Woakes – remember him?). But another Birmingham local, Olly Stone, could be given the opportunity to impress, potentially as a like-for-like replacement for Mark Wood, whose workload England are keen to manage. Jack Leach is likely to return as a spin option, not least given the weather forecast, which means either Broad or Anderson could miss out. Bracey caused England something of a scare on Tuesday evening when he required lengthy treatment on a finger injury, sustained during wicketkeeping drills, but he’s set to continue behind the stumps.
England (possible): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Dom Sibley, 3 Zak Crawley, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ollie Pope, 6 Dan Lawrence, 7 James Bracey (wk), 8 Craig Overton, 9 Jack Leach, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
There’s a fair amount of upheaval in New Zealand’s ranks, partially by design but largely through injury. Williamson will rest his problematic elbow ahead of next week’s main event against India – he has been managing the injury since March, after missing the Bangladesh ODIs and the early part of the IPL. Will Young, who made a century in his most recent match, for Durham in the County Championship last month, will slot in at No. 3. Mitchell Santner has also been ruled out after struggling at Lord’s due to a cut on his left index finger, which may prompt a call-up for either Ajaz Patel or Rachin Ravindra, the other two left-arm spinners in New Zealand’s ranks. In better news for New Zealand, Trent Boult is back in the squad following his quarantine period, and could come straight into contention, along with Matt Henry, with Gary Stead, the head coach, indicating that they will rotate their options ahead of the WTC final.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Tom Latham (capt), 2 Devon Conway, 3 Will Young, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Henry Nicholls, 6 BJ Watling (wk), 7 Colin de Grandhomme, 8 Matt Henry, 9 Kyle Jamieson, 10 Ajaz Patel / Ruchin Ravindra, 11 Trent Boult.
Pitch and conditions
It’s taken a while to splutter into life, but the English summer is now properly upon us, with temperatures in the mid-20s forecast all week. The Edgbaston pitch is habitually a sound one, and Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, has requested a typically true deck with good carry for the seamers. There hasn’t been a whole lot of spin in evidence at the venue this summer – even that notorious fourth-innings assassin Simon Harmer was thwarted when Warwickshire saw off the champions Essex earlier in the season – but the high temperatures may help the pitch to dry and turn on days four and five.
Tom Latham needs 12 runs to reach 4000 in Tests for New Zealand, a mark that only eight New Zealanders have previously reached. His next Test innings, coincidentally, will be his 100th, in his 58th match.
Kane Williamson will have to wait at least until the WTC final to score the 44 runs he needs to overtake Stephen Fleming’s aggregate of 7172 in Tests, and become New Zealand’s second-highest run-scorer of all time, behind Ross Taylor.
“It’s well documented that Kane’s personality and calm nature is vital to this group. He’s very relaxed, he doesn’t get too high or too low, he’s a wonderful leader, which we’ve seen throughout his captaincy career, but especially in the last couple of years, and he certainly will be missed.”
Tom Latham, New Zealand’s stand-in captain, hails the man who will be missing out.
“I see it as an opportunity for them to go out and score Test-match runs for their country, and I hope they see it like that. They have a responsibility to go and play the situation to the best of their ability and try and eradicate any other thoughts.”
Joe Root calls on his young players to embrace the opportunity of playing for England, rather than worry about losing their places when Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler are available again.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket