New Zealand last played Test cricket in South Africa over the Christmas period and were thrashed. Losing to the Proteas is of itself nothing to be ashamed of – after all, England suffered the same fate at home last summer – but the manner of their defeat suggests that they will provide little opposition, even on their home turf.
The big problem for the Black Caps is that a lot of their players are simply not good enough at this level, and that those who are are not consistent enough. Their inability to score runs at the top of the order was fatal to their chances in South Africa, a problem exacerbated by the horrible run of form that Martin Guptill, so often their rock at the start of the innings, was in at the time. He will miss this series because of injury, which is a real blow to the hosts.
To counteract that loss, though, this series sees the return of former captain Ross Taylor, who sat out the South African trip after his unceremonious sacking. He looked in good form during the one day international series and is probably the only player on the New Zealand side that any team in the world would find room for. He is heavily favoured to be New Zealand's top scorer and rightly so, with Bet365 offering a generous 3/1 on him.
One thing which New Zealand must do if they are to stand any chance in this series is to persuade captain Brendon McCullum to bat as he does in one day cricket. He was almost a one man team against England last month but has often looked shackled by responsibility in the Test arena. Players such as the West Indies' Chris Gayle have showed that one explosive batsman at the top of the order can make an average team competitive with any other side in world cricket and McCullum needs to take this on as his role, too. Back him to be
One thing which the host team apparently do not lack is quick bowlers. Neil Wagner's perfomance with both bat and ball was a key part of the NZ XI's victory on Saturday and he has been added to the squad for Wednesday, where he will vie with the likes of Trent Boult and Tim Southee for a starting berth. In the continued injury absence of former captain Daniel Vettori the spinning cupboard looks pretty bare and unless the pitch looks like it might take a lot of spin – in which case 32 year old Bruce Martin will make his debut – it will be an all-seam attack for the Black Caps.
England, by contrast, have no selection concerns at all. They will change two from the side that lost at the weekend, with James Anderson and Steven Finn coming in for Chris Woakes and the disappointing Graham Onions and will treat their first tour match defeat in seven years as it should be treated, a blip and a chance to get a bad perfomance out of the way before the serious games begin.
The man to watch, as always, is captain Alistair Cook. The youngest man to 7000 Test runs will be looking to add a hatful to that total and you can still get betting odds of at least 9/4 in most markets on his being England's leading scorer in the series. His opening partner, Nick Compton, will be hoping for a big score of his own to get some doubters off of his own back, and you can get at least 4/1 on him scoring a fifty in this match.
England are odds on to win this opening encounter, but now is the very best time to back them for a series victory, too. As the New Zealand summer drifts to a close I don't expect a full five days of play to be possible in all games, so a 2-0 (9/4 with Ladbrokes) England victory looks to be the safest way to place your sports picks.