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England look to lift darkness in first New Zealand Test

England training
The Test against New Zealand is England’s first under new coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes
England v New Zealand, first LV Insurance Test
Venue: Lord’s Dates: 2-6 June
Coverage: Daily highlights on BBC Two and iPlayer. Ball-by-ball Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, Radio 4 LW, online, tablets, mobiles and BBC Sport app. Live text commentary and clips on the BBC Sport website and app.

The darkest hour is before the dawn and English cricket is crying out for daybreak.

Winter has been bleak. The men’s Test side beaten from The Gabba to Grenada, the T20 team missing out on a World Cup they should have won. Even England’s women tried to get in on the chaos before somehow plotting their way to the World Cup final.

Off the field, racism revelations have caused reputational damage that could take years to fix. The decision not to go to Pakistan brought down England and Wales Cricket Board chair Ian Watmore, with his successor possibly not in place before England finally get there in September.

Chief executive Tom Harrison is on the way out. His interim replacement, Clare Connor, juggles so many jobs at the ECB, MCC and ICC one wonders if she has been particularly badly hit by the cost of living crisis.

On top of this, introspection over the state of domestic cricket is due to be addressed by a review involving Sir Dave Brailsford, who might think the best way to help the counties is to give them all therapeutic use exemptions.

And yet, despite all of that, optimism has been brought to Thursday’s first men’s Test against New Zealand in the shape of new managing director Rob Key, coach Brendon McCullum and captain Ben Stokes.

For Key’s part, the most important part of his job might now be done. If Stokes was the obvious and only candidate to be captain, the appointment of McCullum was a thrilling bolt from the blue.

  • England must acknowledge ‘scars’ – Stokes
  • Can McCullum change England again?

How McCullum and Stokes go about moulding the Test side will be fascinating. In terms of making improvements, they start from a low base – it shouldn’t be too difficult to be better than one win in the previous 17 matches.

Their first selection, understandably, is largely built on the previous era. There is no transfer market for England to recruit a new opener or replace an injured fast bowler. It is mostly the same cricketers looking to play better cricket through the McCullum-Stokes attitude, approach and style.

Only Stokes and his predecessor Joe Root are guaranteed a place in the starting XI, meaning there are questions everywhere else you look.

This is a blank canvas for the England Test team – Stokes

England are no closer to disproving the theory that the country’s best opening pair is still Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. Alex Lees gets another opportunity to show he is more than an honest county pro, while Zak Crawley must put a higher price on his wicket, rather than batting like a man spending someone else’s money.

In moving Root from number three to number four, England have created a problem that wasn’t there, and will ask Ollie Pope to provide the solution despite the Surrey man never having batted at first drop in his first-class career.

Jonny Bairstow, whose last two Test hundreds have come at number six, is moved again, this time up to five. He could have the wicketkeeping position in his future if Ben Foakes fails to add runs to his high-class glovework.

English fast bowlers must feel like they are caught up in a Final Destination movie, such is the lengthy injury list. The fact that 39-year-old James Anderson and Stuart Broad, 35, are fit is a further reminder their longevity is just as impressive as their immeasurable skill, but they are closing in on the finish line.

Debutant Matty Potts is the 12th different specialist fast bowler England have used since the beginning of last year. Spinner Jack Leach hasn’t played a home Test since 2019.

How might the team evolve? Leg-spinner Matty Parkinson can’t keep being ignored, while Harry Brook is the coming man for the middle order.

It was Stokes, in his one previous Test as captain, that united Mark Wood and Jofra Archer for the only time, suggesting a preference for pace, if any of the fast men can get fit. There is talk of a potential return for Jos Buttler, though it must surely be considered that his stellar IPL form could be because he has been freed from thinking about Test cricket.

It was pleasing to hear McCullum speak of ditching rotation, the well-meaning but botched plan that blighted the previous Ashley Giles-Chris Silverwood regime. England are not good enough to be thinking about the Test in a week or a month’s time, and must simply concentrate on the match that is immediately in front of them.

  • TMS podcast: England v NZ preview with Brendon McCullum
  • Matty Potts: From confident kid to the brink of his Test debut

The upcoming challenges are stiff, affording no opportunity for McCullum and Stokes to get their feet under the table.

New Zealand are the reigning world champions and late-summer visitors South Africa are improving. In between, India will come to complete a series in which they were the better side last year.

Winter assignments in Pakistan and New Zealand are devilishly difficult, all before the arrival of Australia next summer. For as much as English cricket obsesses over the Ashes, the best way to win the urn will be to forget about winning it, and instead focus on having the best team to take on every opponent between now and then.

The rebuilding of the England Test team is likely to have an impact on the white-ball side. The schedule is packed and new limited-overs coach Matthew Mott could see little of Stokes as he plots an assault on World Cups in both the T20 and 50-over formats during the next 18 months.

It might be that Mott’s arrival gives an unintentional boost to England’s women, who have suffered as he moulded Australia into an unstoppable winning juggernaut. With Mott out of the picture, England could have a better chance at the Commonwealth Games this summer and the T20 World Cup in the early part of next year.

Still, for everything that forms English cricket – white-ball success, women’s cricket, the domestic system and corporate decisions – the health of the game in this country is usually seen through the prism of the men’s Test team.

If McCullum and Stokes can finally deliver a win or two, or even some improved performances, it will feel like the darkness is lifting.

Is this the break of dawn?

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