Big picture: Getting the game-faces on
Change of week, change of format, change of headspace, same opponents … sort of.
Forget the exploratory joustings that played out in a deeply peculiar T20I series, one in which England were a class apart until they were not, and in which New Zealand went from distracted cannon-fodder to destructive bomb-squaddies in the space of 48 hours. This time, things will be deadly serious from the get-go. Got it?
Though not, let’s be clear, quite as serious as they’ll be getting in Ahmedabad in little under a month’s time, at the 2023 World Cup curtain-raiser. And certainly not a patch on the timeless drama that brought down the house at Lord’s four years ago, on the last occasion that these two teams crossed swords in the 50-over arena.
Instead, we’re braced for … well, who rightly knows, if truth be told. After four years in mothballs, the ODI format is moving centre stage once again, braced for a comeback of Sinatra-esque proportions if the full hype of a World Cup in India is anything to go by. And yet, the journey that these two teams have taken in the interim rather epitomises the neglect that 50-over cricket has endured since that game of games. Can England and New Zealand reach an ODI cruising altitude from a standing start over the course of four games in eight days? That’s what we’re all itching to find out.
For England, the most notable talking point is, inevitably, the return of Ben Stokes after his short-lived ODI retirement. And yet, he’s barely more of a stranger to the format than a host of his fellow World Cup heroes. Joe Root, for instance, last batted in a 50-over match on July 22 last year, three days after Stokes had said his farewells at Chester-le-Street, and has featured in just 15 such matches in four years.Jonny Bairstow is also coming back from a 14-month hiatus, albeit much of that relates to his horrific broken leg. But even Jos Buttler, the captain, has played in barely half of England’s contests since the World Cup final (23 out of 39), while Brydon Carse, the reserve seamer, has played more times than their designated spearhead Mark Wood (9 to 8).
Ben Stokes bats in the nets•Getty Images
The ECB’s dereliction of the format post-2019 has been uncompromising – not least with the birth of the Hundred relegating domestic 50-over cricket to a feeder competition. And yet, the lack of ODI game-time is far from a uniquely English issue.
Between their twin World Cup final appearances in 2015 and 2019, New Zealand racked up a healthy 76 matches (and 43 wins); that number has plummeted to 36 (and 21) in the four years since. And aside from the near-permanent fixture, the captain Tom Latham (35 caps), no player has featured in more than 70% of those – least of all the most in-demand man in their ranks, Trent Boult, the last of whose ten caps came almost exactly a year ago in Cairns.
What does any of this actually prove in this day and age, however? New Zealand’s slow start to the T20I series could in part be attributed to their crazy, atomised build-up, with half the squad flying in from a low-key series in the UAE and the rest floating along via stints of varying lengths in the Hundred. But, equally, their flying finish showed how quickly professional outfits can find sufficient cohesion amid the madcap treadmill lifestyle.
Besides, as England’s Test team have spent the past year and a bit proving with their Bazball revolution, who the hell cares about preparation these days anyway? Stokes, Root, Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Wood and Chris Woakes are among the senior players to have peaced out on Brendon McCullum’s good vibes in recent months – be it sacking off warm-up matches for an extra round of golf, or breaking the pre-Test tension with a six-hitting competition on the practice strip.
And yet, none of that carefree attitude could ever have been allowed to take root had it not been trialled and approved in the course of the white-ball renaissance that preceded it. And so for England in particular, this series is about coming full circle – about forgetting all circumstance and just doubling down on the instinctual cricket that turned them into world-beaters in the first place.
As for New Zealand, they are the team from whom England took those initial cues back in 2015, and for all the over-riding sense that their own golden generation is now deep into transition, there’s still a sufficient well of experience within that dressing-room for them to go deep once again.
And that depth of knowhow, incidentally, includes the as-yet unready Kane Williamson, who is inching his way back from long-term knee injury but is clearly a World Cup shoo-in given half a bill of health. His progress on the sidelines will be a subplot of the coming days, and a reminder too that so much about this World Cup build-up is about being all right on the night.
Tom Latham speaks to the media ahead of the first ODI•Getty Images
England LWWWL (last five matches, most recent first)
New Zealand WLLLL
In the spotlight: Ben Stokes and Trent Boult
“Lol” was Ben Stokes’ succinct response on Twitter / X when news of his England ODI recall was confirmed by the ECB – an echo of Moeen’s famous response to Stokes’ own “Ashes?” WhatsApp message, asking if he would consider a Test comeback as Jack Leach’s replacement. It is unclear whether Jos Buttler phrased his petitions quite so succinctly, but the logic in both cases was unimpeachable. When there’s a job to be done, this particular England set-up values experience and camaraderie over almost all other traits. And when it comes to 50-over cricket, nobody does it better than Stokes. Will it matter that he officially retired from the format 14 months ago? Almost certainly not. He made way last July because he felt he could not give “100% to the shirt”, and wanted someone else to make an unarguable case in his absence. And yet, England have played just 11 ODIs in that time, nine of them overseas, at least six of which were grossly overshadowed by the T20 zeitgeist – England’s World Cup-winning hangover in Australia last November, and the competing attractions of the franchise circuit in Bangladesh the following March. As a consequence, Stokes has missed nothing of note. Assuming his body holds up, his mind – as we know from proven experience across all formats – will be keenly attuned to his task.
He was hardly the first in-demand cricketer to go freelance, but Trent Boult’s decision to turn down a New Zealand central contract last year was a notable moment nonetheless. At the age of 34, he remains one of the pre-eminent left-arm seamers in the world, but this will be his first international outing in any format since the T20 World Cup in Australia last November. Since then, the selectors have been resolute in their desire to give chances to those who are willing to commit to the national side – leading to the slightly absurd scenario earlier this year, when a Test match against England took place in his home town of Mount Maunganui, with Boult kicking his heels a few miles down the road. But with the big show approaching, there’s no thought of protocol holding sway any longer. His record across 99 career ODIs is outstanding, 187 wickets at 23.97, but in reaching the final in each of his two previous World Cup campaigns, Boult has racked up 39 wickets in 19 matches at 21.79. And in his infrequent 50-over appearances in the past four years, that average plummets to 16.21. He remains an essential weapon and a key reason to believe another deep World Cup run is within the team’s grasp.
Team news: England bring out the big guns
England’s ODI ambitions feel as though they’ve been frozen in time since July 14, 2019, and so their first-choice XI has a fittingly retro feel, with up to nine World Cup medallists set to take the field together for this opening fixture. That number should include five of the 2019 top six, with only the retired Eoin Morgan guaranteed to make way … for Liam Livingstone in the first instance, although as we all know, Harry Brook is making a phenomenal case for his inclusion (although he has yet to link up with the squad after being added at the last minute). Perhaps the most crucial micro-reunion is due to come at the top of the order where Jason Roy and Bairstow will, niggles permitting, once again be charged with setting the tone in the trailblazing manner that set England apart in the previous World Cup cycle.
Roy, perhaps surprisingly, has been England’s ODI mainstay since that epic final at Lord’s, featuring in 32 of their 39 subsequent fixtures, but his form has at times fallen through the floor. Dawid Malan, potentially absent on paternity leave at some stage this week, and feeling the Brook pinch like few others, is itching to make his case as the reserve opener – and given Bairstow felt a shoulder twinge in the final T20I, that chance could yet come sooner rather than later. On the bowling front, Sam Curran is the only guaranteed starter from the post-2019 generation, although Mark Wood may be rested in the short to medium term, meaning Gus Atkinson – in that provisional World Cup squad but yet to be tested across 50 overs – might be in line to begin his fast-tracking as England’s new 90mph option. Moeen might conceivably give way to an extra seamer, given Cardiff’s unfriendly dimensions for offspin.
England: (possible) 1 Jason Roy, 2 Jonny Bairstow / Dawid Malan, 3 Joe Root, 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Jos Buttler (capt & wk), 6 Liam Livingstone, 7 Moeen Ali / Brydon Carse, 8 Sam Curran, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Mark Wood / Gus Atkinson, 11 Adil Rashid
Trent Boult is back in the New Zealand set-up for first time this year•Getty Images
After a T20 partnership that extended from Southern Brave’s Hundred campaign into the T20I series, Devon Conway and Finn Allen have been separated for the 50-over format, with Allen’s place in the World Cup squad seemingly out of the picture too. Instead Conway will front up alongside Will Young, who has averaged an imposing 49.33 with a strike-rate in excess of 90 in his 15 ODIs since 2019. Williamson is still recovering from a cruciate ligament tear in April, and may not be fit to play in any of the four games. Daryl Mitchell and Glenn Phillips will provide the power in the middle order. On the bowling front, it’s a familiar cast of proven performers, with Boult’s return the stand-out selection. “It’s along the same lines as Stokes [for England],” Latham said. “Having someone of world-class calibre come back into your side is always confidence-boosting.”
New Zealand: 1 Will Young, 2 Devon Conway, 3 Daryl Mitchell, 4 Glenn Phillips, 5 Tom Latham (capt & wk), 6 Henry Nicholls, 7 Mitchell Santner, 8 Matt Henry, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Lockie Ferguson, 11 Trent Boult
Pitch and conditions
Cardiff, with its short straight boundaries and deep pockets square of the wicket, offers the usual challenges for bowlers, with back-of-a-length bombs and wide lines for the spinners likely to be the order of the day. The pitch itself is pretty close to the centre of the square and has a bit of live grass on it. The surfaces served up much higher scores in the Blast than in previous years, although those used for the Hundred proved to be fairly turgid. The weather is set to be sweltering.
Cardiff has hosted 29 ODIs in total, and 15 involving England – most recently in July 2021, when Stokes’ Covid-affected scratch side pulled off a remarkable nine-wicket win over Pakistan.
Overall, England have won nine and lost three of their completed matches at Sophia Gardens. Their most recent loss was in the Champions Trophy semi-final, also against Pakistan in 2017.
New Zealand have had a mixed time of it at the venue, winning four and losing three of their seven games, all of them in ICC events. Their most recent visit was for a ten-wicket hammering of Sri Lanka at the 2019 World Cup.
Stokes’ ODI record seemed to be a done deal until last month. Now, he’s back, and needs 76 more runs to reach 3000 in the format, to go along with his 74 wickets at 42.39.
Boult is set to play his 100th ODI, and his first in almost exactly 12 months.
“That’s the reality of being in a very strong team. We are a very strong team, and we know that. Competition for places is the best possible thing for us… I’m sure that a lot of the final decisions will, potentially, be made around some of the form that the lads show in this series.”
Ben Stokes acknowledges that England’s “provisional” World Cup 15 is far from finalised
“There are a lot of passionate All Blacks supporters in our dressing room so I’m sure that, if the time works, we’ll have it on the TVs at some point.”
Tom Latham, New Zealand’s captain, expects the other World Cup in France to be a focal point for his team
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket