The long shadow of back-to-back Ashes series later this year crept on to University Oval on Tuesday as England captain Alastair Cook went through his final media conference ahead of their first Test of 2013 against New Zealand.
Cook’s side will play 15 Tests in the next 12 months, three in New Zealand, two against the same opposition in England in May, before the back-to-back Ashes series against Australia.
The unflappable Cook, like his imperious batting style, let a few of the questions whistle past him, preferring instead to focus on the more immediate future.
It was obvious, however, that retaining the Ashes against Michael Clarke’s team was already in their thinking.
“Yes, we have got a huge year and yes, it’s great to be involved in such a big year of Test cricket … but as players we have to focus on tomorrow’s game and worry about all the other stuff afterward,” Cook said.
“It’s quite exciting for us to look at what we can do with 15 Test matches.
“I don’t think any England side has had the opportunity to play two back-to-back Ashes series and play New Zealand as well.
“So we have the chance to do something very special if we can perform to the way we can perform, but if we don’t, we will get found out.”
Cook’s team were given a bit of a wake-up call immediately before the first Test when they lost to the New Zealand XI, essentially an ‘A’ side, by three wickets in their only warm-up before the series-opener at the tiny University Oval in Dunedin’s northern suburbs.
The 28-year-old, however, was more pleased with what he saw in the game than the result, with both Matt Prior and Ian Bell producing strong batting efforts and fast bowler Stuart Broad getting through an impressive workload in Queenstown.
Twenty20 captain Broad was forced home from their victorious tour of India late last year with a recurrence of a heel injury and doubts over his long-term future.
“To see Stuart Broad back, with his heel, he bowled quite a lot and got a bigger workload than we thought and pulled through with no effect on his heel at all, which is good news for us moving on to the summer,” a smiling Cook said.
“Yes, we were disappointed to lose but actually it really doesn’t matter. The important stuff starts tomorrow.”
England had some “minor niggles” to check but Cook expected all 15 of the squad available for selection.
New Zealand, however, were forced to make at least one change with Doug Bracewell ruled out with a cut to his foot, sustained when he stood on a glass while cleaning up following a party at his house in Napier.
Left arm pace bowler Neil Wagner will come into the side as the first change option, with Ian Butler and left arm spinner Bruce Martin battling for the final place.
Captain Brendon McCullum said he would bat at six to give the lower middle order some experience and depth, and put the onus back on the top order to produce runs, something New Zealand teams have struggled to do in Tests in recent years.
“We have to make sure that we get the run production from our batters,” McCullum said.
“Adding a batter and shifting some of our experience to the middle order should give us an ability to score some runs later and add some better runs with the tail as well.
“If we can do that, then I think we’ve got a young bowling line-up which has the ability on the day with enough runs in the bank to really test the opposition.”