England look set to take a full-strength squad of 15 to New Zealand for the forthcoming three-Test series to be played in February and March.
Suggestions that there would be opportunity to rest some key players ahead of a demanding year that includes the Champions Trophy limited-overs competition in June and back-to-back five-Test Ashes series are likely to prove fruitless when the squad is announced on Thursday by the national selector, Geoff Miller, before the one-day side leave for Dharamsala for their final match of the India leg of their limited-overs trip.
Diplomacy appears to be the key. According to sources, the New Zealand cricket board has confirmed its intention to send a full-strength squad to England in May for the two-Test series, despite a number of their key players having lucrative contracts with the Indian Premier League which will still be in full flow at that time. Included in that is likely to be the former captain Ross Taylor, mysteriously relieved of his position last month and who opted to take a sabbatical as a result.
Taylor, arguably New Zealand's finest batsman since Martin Crowe, is set to resume his career by turning out for Central Districts this week. Under the circumstances, it would be inappropriate for England to consider sending a weakened squad there, a consideration given further legs by the furore surrounding Kevin Pietersen's demands last summer for a less intensive programme and his desire to play more IPL cricket.
This may not deter England from invoking the rotation policy for the return series, although whether it will be made clear that any rest from cricket is exactly that, rather than freeing up time to pursue other cricketing interests, is another matter. The outcome of the series in New Zealand may have a bearing on this, as will the fact that there will be no international commitment for contracted players for roughly six weeks on return from New Zealand.
For the successful series in India before Christmas, the selectors opted for a 16-man party, augmented at a later stage by Pietersen, who by then had settled his differences. This time it will be cut down by two, almost certainly batsmen both, and probably Eoin Morgan and Samit Patel.
The latter was an integral part of the plans for the first three Tests, initially as someone who could add some overs of spin to his skill in facing spinners, but he suffered two poor decisions in the first Test, which England lost, and never really got going after that, despite the team success that followed. The decision to replace him with Joe Root for the final Test, at the urging of the batting and bowling coaches who had seen things in practice that they liked very much, rather sealed things. Morgan, meanwhile, has stated his willingness to sacrifice IPL time to establish himself as a Test batsman, but may find that is not necessary. In the past year, following his poor performance against Pakistan in UAE, England have selected Patel, Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor and Root ahead of him, and although he went to India, he appears not to have come close to making the side. The inclusion of Bairstow, who returned home early from the Test tour of India for family reasons and who has not played since, means the door firmly shuts on both Patel and Morgan.
Bowling in New Zealand is likely to be seam-dominated, and England will surely revert to their habitual attack of three pacemen and one spinner, particularly now that Root has shown that he has considerably more bowling potential than simply a fill-in spinner. Following injury, Stuart Broad is set to rejoin England for the one-day series in New Zealand and presumably the Test series, but will have to make an immediate impression if he is to regain his place in the 11 for the first Test. His recent performances have been well below par and, with just a single warm-up match before the series, there is a real chance that Graham Onions will gain a place ahead of him, alongside Jimmy Anderson and Steven Finn.
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