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  • England in New Zealand, 2012-13

England get back into Test mode

Andrew McGlashan
February 26, 2013 « McClaren parts ways with FC Twente | Chartbeat test »
Andy Flower has got his squad back for the first time since his new job-share with Ashley Giles officially began at the start of January © AFP
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The bike rides around Queenstown's stunning shoreline and the helicopter flights to snow-capped mountains now get put to one side. England's Test squad - virtually at full strength with only the injured Tim Bresnan not part of the 15 - are now all in the same place, on New Zealand's South Island, to prepare for the Test series which starts in Dunedin on March 6.

The Test-only players - Nick Compton, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior, Graham Onions and Monty Panesar - along with team director Andy Flower arrived in Queenstown last week for a training camp that has not all been about cricket. The players have been posting regular updates on Twitter, marveling at the beauty of the location and the chance to undertake some of the more touristy aspects of the town rather than nets and fitness drills all the time.

However, now joined by the Test names from the one-day squad, who are not going to have the same opportunity for too much downtime - although some of the players were hurling themselves off a suspension bridge on Tuesday in one of Queenstown's adrenalin-filled options - there are four important days ahead to get back into red-ball cricket.

"It's about getting your tempo right, getting back into those routines and hopefully we can do those quickly so we can hit the ground running," Ian Bell said. "We always look to win these warm-up matches as that helps create momentum going into the Tests series."

Bell, at least, showed solid form in the ODIs, batting in a style not far removed from his Test cricket. Compton and Pietersen have not batted in the middle since Nagpur, Prior has only had a brief, unproductive stint at the Big Bash League, while Onions and Panesar (the latter unlikely to play a major part in the series) will have been indoors until arriving here a few days ago.

"It's more like playing in English conditions so it's quite familiar to us," Bell said. "In India, it was great because the way we had to bat and bowl was different to home. We don't want to go away from what we do well."

And then there is Flower. This is the first time he will have regained the players since his new job-share with Ashley Giles officially began at the start of January. Giles, with two series wins in New Zealand and a creditable showing in India, has started to relax into the role after admitting to initial feelings of uncertainty and a 'what would Andy have done' mindset.

Giles has now nipped over to Sydney to catch the tail-end of the Lions tour - a trip that has had its share of problems, from hammerings on the field and issues off it - to leave Flower to get back hold of his Test team for their first assignment of a double Ashes year. He has been in regular contact with Giles during the limited-overs matches, but just as Giles had to work out how best to fit into his new job, Flower will need to settle back into the day-to-day role again. On Tuesday, he was busy directing England's centre-wicket practice session and looked delighted to be back among the cut and thrust; the Test team is undisputedly Flower's.

Despite an indifferent 2012, until it was rescued by the India victory, the squad is a settled one, barring the occasional new face or change forced by form, injury or reintegration. Compton was given first crack at replacing Andrew Strauss and probably did enough in India to ensure he gets a chance to build on the early promise and graft. But he needs that maiden hundred soon to ward off the management's thoughts of promoting Joe Root to open.

If a harsh call was made to move Root up now, and drop Compton, it would open up a spot for Jonny Bairstow in the middle order. He has had a difficult few months - one innings in Mumbai and family issues forced him to head home; Root and Jos Buttler then emerged to keep him out of the one-day team. But someone who can take 95 off South Africa is not short on character. His time will come again, but probably not on this tour.

Compton, Pietersen and Prior will hope for two innings against the New Zealand XI to get back into the rhythm of batting, but regardless England's top seven for Dunedin is unlikely to alter from those on duty in Nagpur. There is, however, one spot which could be influenced by events in Queenstown - the third quick behind James Anderson and Steven Finn.

Stuart Broad's return from injury in the limited-overs portion of the tour has been a success - if occasionally a touch expensive - but that is no guarantee that he will regain the Test spot he lost after two wicketless Tests in India. Graham Onions is a bowler with all the attributes to be a handful in New Zealand and his natural length is a touch fuller than Broad's, which will be important against batsmen weak outside the off stump.

Onions has played just once - against West Indies at Edgbaston when Broad and Anderson were rested - since being fully returned as a squad member following a serious back injury. Twice England brought in fast-bowling replacements in India: Finn replaced Broad, then Bresnan replaced Finn. All the while, Onions kept his fluorescent top that the reserves now wear on the boundary edge. Off-colour performances in the tour matches, and perhaps a perception that he is not a natural reverse-swing bowler, counted against him in India.

He does not have much of a chance to press his case in New Zealand either, and he will have to rely on Flower being unsure of the miles in the legs of either Anderson or Finn to even be assured of a starting place in Queenstown.

For Broad, the significance of the four-day match is coming back for third and fourth spells - if the opposition are good enough to require that - to really test the durability of his heel inside those specially designed boots. Given his diminishing returns with the bat - he has a highest score of 37 in his last 15 innings - that side of his game should not enter the reckoning for a decision over the final XI.

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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