New Zealand vs England: Supposedly 'meaningless' series threw up some interesting questions and equally intriguing answers
The series between England and New Zealand was one that was struggling for meaning from the beginning, and meandered to a close in the Waikato rain at the end, but had some quality cricket in between.
Before the coin was tossed at the start of the first match, there were a number of questions that this series was supposed to answer. It answered some but created almost as many new questions as it answered.
The first Test at Mount Maunganui was the first test ever held there. In some ways, a series that was not part of the World Test Championship was an ideal start. There was some genuine interest in how the pitch would play.
Interestingly, the groundsman had found that in order to get a pitch that played well for four-day cricket he needed to use a thinner tray of dirt than had previously been used at the ground. He was unsure how this would translate to a five-day test. What happened was that the pitch deteriorated quicker and more dramatically than New Zealand pitches normally do. As a result, Bay Oval is probably a good addition to the New Zealand Test circuit. However, the result was only possible because England batted poorly. A good pitch should allow more than 29 wickets to fall in close to five full days.
Another point of interest was to see how Jofra Archer performed with the Kookaburra ball that should have suited him much more than the other English pace bowlers. In general, he was rather poor.
While he was very unlucky to have an easy catch dropped off him on Day 5 in Hamilton, the two wickets that he did take were both at the end of the innings when players were trying to push the scoring and taking more risks. He looked toothless when the batsmen were cautious.
In a lot of ways he has left the selectors with a conundrum: do they keep picking him because of how capable he is, or do they give someone else a go, because of how poorly he bowled?
Another interesting aspect was to see how England's other young guns would go. They had seven players in the squad who were under 25 years old, and three who were 21.
Archer was one of five young players who had played at least one Test, and it would be fair to say that their results were unconvincing. Sam Curran was reasonable with the ball, but still has not mastered the different techniques required to swing the Kookaburra ball. He also looked quite good with the bat, without playing any significant innings. Ollie Pope had one good innings, one more than either Zac Crawley or Dominic Sibley.
Probably the main talking point before the match from New Zealand fans was if Lockie Ferguson could convert his remarkable first-class statistics to test level. However, after two matches that is a question that we still don't have an answer for. He did not feature in either match, with Matt Henry chosen ahead of him for Hamiton.
Henry had another forgettable test, and his average is now approaching 50. He will be going to Australia, but it will be surprising if he continues to be selected ahead of Ferguson.
Another talking point in New Zealand was the selection of Mitchell Santner. People wondered what the point of that selection was. However, it turned out that he showed at Bay Oval that he can be a very useful contributor. Having Watling, de Grandhomme and him batting at numbers 6,7 and 8 gives the Kiwis a very strong lower middle, combining for just under 400 runs. Then he managed to really cause some havoc at the end of Day 4, and there was hope that he would run through the English team on the final day. But he struggled to find the right pace for the pitch on Day 5, and as a result did not take any wickets, despite creating plenty of pressure.
From England there was some pressure on Joe Root, with his batting in Tests not really being up to the mark since taking over as captain. A popular statistic did the rounds on social media showing that Tim Southee had averaged more than Root since mid 2017. However, Root answered any critics emphatically in Hamilton, with an outstanding double century to put his team into a strong position.
During that innings Root's career aggregate went past Walter Hammond's total, meaning that now there is no English player who has scored more runs at a higher average than Joe Root.
The series itself threw up some new questions too. One of them was if these were the worst pitches New Zealand had ever produced.
The answer to that is 'no', but they were still bad. There were matches where the pitches were sprayed with glue which were considerably worse. However they were certainly not typical New Zealand green tops.
Traditionally matches in New Zealand need to have seen twelve wickets fall before lunch on the second day if there is going to be a result. In most countries, pitches tend to get harder to bat on, with the second innings being the easiest and the fourth innings being the hardest. In New Zealand the first innings tends to be the hardest and the third tends to be the easiest.
These pitches did not display that characteristic. Eight wickets fell in the first 120 overs in the first Test, and only six fell in the first 120 overs in the second match. As a result, these matches produced some interesting mental battles and some very attritional cricket, but they did not produce a lot of action.
Another question is if Lockie Ferguson will play a Test at all this summer. One school of thought is that Australia is a bad place to debut and that it tends to destroy a player's confidence if they start off there. However, the obvious counter to that is that Shane Bond, Trent Boult and a host of others made their test debuts in Australia and plenty of them went on to have good careers for New Zealand.
Another extraordinary performance with both the bat and particularly the ball at Bay Oval leads to the question as to how De Grandhomme manages to look so threatening and yet so innocuous at the same time? There is nothing in the way that he either bats or bowls that suggests that he would have a batting average over 40 and a bowling average under 30, but he has, and is the only player to do so in the last 90 years.
When Daryl Mitchell got his chance, he also looked innocuous with the ball, but didn't create chances. De Grandhomme manages to just do enough to regularly cause problems, suggesting that there is something more than meets the eye about his bowling.
This series also resulted in it being less clear than ever what England's best bowling line up is. Once James Anderson is back, who is going to play with him? Archer generally looked toothless. Stuart Broad looked good at times, and was unlucky, but he also went missing for spells, and Curran was somewhat unconvincing. Chris Woakes looked the best of the bunch, but it's hard to know if that was just because the batsmen were trying to score off him, rather than anything that he actually did with the ball.
There were a few people claim during the series that Ben Stokes is the best player in the world. As a New Zealand born Englishman, he was in the right place for a biased audience, but he really is starting to stake his claim.
He is probably not quite the best in the world, but he is very, very good. He did not look 100 percent fit, yet he consistently created pressure with the ball and looked classy as usual with the bat.
After the second match, there are still many in New Zealand wondering what actually is the point of Santner. He bowled 35 overs on a wearing pitch that had variable bounce and was getting some sideways movement, and only managed one wicket. He showed in the first Test why some want him there, and in the second test why some do not.
But the major talking point in New Zealand is the form of Jeet Raval. There is always a player who's dropping is the cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre among fans from most cricket nations. For New Zealand fans it is Raval. And it is not hard to see why.
In his last five Tests he has scored only 64 runs at an average of less than 10. His dismissal in the second innings at Hamilton was particularly bizarre. He hit the ball, was given out LBW, and did not seem to even think about a review.
This lack of confidence is probably more concerning than his run of outs. His dismissals have mostly been to spin or medium pace, neither of which he is likely to face early on against Australia. He is strong on bouncy wickets but struggles when the ball keeps low. Again, that is hardly a problem in Australia. But his lack of confidence is a big issue.
Finding a way to turn his confidence around in the next 12 days should be one of the most urgent priorities for Peter Fulton, New Zealand's new batting coach, as an effective opening partnership is vital against Australia.
New Zealand have been able to host a Test series in the spring, and have managed to beat one of the top sides in the world. But they have not answered all of the questions that they would have started the series with, and the form of Raval has probably given an extra headache to the leadership. England started with a bunch of new players, and have not yet managed to either secure their opening partnership or their top bowling line up. They too end this series with more questions than answers.