Joe Root out to forget Ashes with different stamp on New Zealand trip



England’s longest tour for more than half a century enters its final phase in Auckland on Thursday afternoon. Admittedly all the players have flitted back home at some point to reunite with their families, a luxury not permitted Ted Dexter and his team on the 1962-63 tour of the antipodes. But there may be some tired minds, if not limbs, among those English cricketers who play in both white and red-ball cricket.

Back in 1962 a trip to New Zealand was regarded as a gentle holiday after the rigours of Australia, as well as a chance to restore ailing Test averages. England won all three Tests comfortably, two by an innings, against modest opposition. That has all changed. New Zealand is no longer a sinecure with victory more or less assured. A tour here is now a severe challenge; nothing is guaranteed and Joe Root knows it.

Any win away from home is a minor triumph, especially for a team who have lost nine of their last 12 Tests outside England. “Looking around world cricket it is very hard for any side to win away from home‚“ Root says. As a relatively new Test captain he is desperate to salvage something from this expedition. “It has been a tough winter but we have two Tests to put a different stamp on this trip and change our momentum going into the summer.”

Root hinted at changes in the pattern if not the personnel of England’s bowling attack, with the possibility of Stuart Broad no longer being given the new ball. In fact, Root spoke more of flexibility than change; he would not guarantee that Broad would bowl first change. “It really depends on the conditions,” he kept stressing. “But if we keep doing things exactly the same way we might get exactly the same results. This is one small thing that might make a difference. It might not.”

There is obviously one larger thing that Root believes might make a bigger difference. Ben Stokes is back and the England camp are optimistic he will be fit enough to bowl as well as bat. Root spoke about Stokes in a manner that he could never do in Australia when his key all-rounder was unavailable. Perhaps unwittingly he was explaining away the emphatic Ashes defeat, such was his glowing analysis of Stokes’s contribution to his team.

“You get three players with Ben and on his day probably the best three players within the side all in one. It is a huge boost to have him coming back. It gives us a really good balance,” Root said. “We have to be quite careful and make sure that he is absolutely ready, and be flexible how we use him, especially in the first Test.”

One problem seems to be containing Stokes’s eagerness upon his return. “You have to try but there’s only so much you can stop him doing. He’s just so excited and you don’t want to take that away from him. He is such a good character around the dressing room. When he speaks about the game, he gets everyone’s attention and they listen.”

Assuming Stokes manages to persuade everyone he is fully fit, then England will go into the Test with a long batting lineup on paper, with Chris Woakes at nine ahead of Broad and Jimmy Anderson. That would mean James Vince retaining his place at three and therefore any debate about whether Root himself should occupy that position would be shelved. Root spoke of flexibility again, although he did eventually admit that he still thinks four is his best slot.

Forty-eight hours before the start, the pitch at Eden Park was well grassed. Factor in the pink ball, which everyone expects to be the fast bowler’s friend, especially as darkness descends, and the temptation for a long batting lineup is obvious.

The England batsman Dawid Malan focuses on the ball as Ben Stokes looks on during a nets session. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

The short straight boundaries should not be such a factor in a Test match but the spinners, Moeen Ali and Todd Astle, a 31-year-old leg-spinner drafted into the squad after Mitchell Santner’s knee injury, will still be aware of them – assuming Astle is selected by New Zealand, who also have concerns about the fitness of Ross Taylor. He damaged a thigh in the ODI series and this has prompted the call-up of Martin Guptill as cover.

Nonetheless, the New Zealanders are always optimistic now, especially at home, and this is based on the potency of their pace attack. No one argues over the greatest Kiwi fast bowler of all time (Sir Richard Hadlee) but one could have a long debate over the second best. Among the possibles would, surprisingly, be Neil Wagner (144 wickets at 27.87) and Tim Southee (208 at 31.45). Trent Boult (200 at 28.56) is probably the strongest candidate of a trio who will all be in action at Eden Park.

Wagner has a county championship winner’s medal after his season at Essex last year and he recalled his summer alongside Alastair Cook. “He’s a great lad, loved spending time with him. We’ve already had some banter about this series, so I look forward to playing against him. It will be quite an interesting battle, then we can sit down, have a laugh and talk about it.” The contest will be fierce enough but, no, this is not the Ashes.