New Zealand saw their hopes of levelling the ongoing series against England suffer a significant setback after Kane Williamson, captain and leading batsman, was ruled out of today’s second Test after contracting Covid-19.
Williamson was present at training on Thursday and in an upbeat pre-match press conference extolled the virtues of Test cricket in response to a recent forecast from Greg Barclay, chair of the International Cricket Council, that the format will shrink in future.
But late in the evening news broke that the 31-year-old has tested positive for the virus. A five-day isolation period follows – Williamson could in theory return for the third Test at Headingley – and now Tom Latham will lead the tourists in Nottingham as they look to fight back from the five-wicket defeat at Lord’s.
Asked earlier for his response to Barclay’s prediction that Test cricket will be cut amid the rise of domestic Twenty20 leagues, Williamson said: “We love our Test cricket, as do all nations who have the opportunity to play it. It’s the pinnacle of the sport and we want to see more of it. There’s a number of people who have to make decisions but there’s certainly a love for it among Test nations.”
New Zealand, the world champions, already battle for fixtures and this three-match series against England is a rarity. Their lack of fixtures is demonstrated by the fact that Williamson made his Test debut in 2010, two years prior to Joe Root, and before his positive result was in line for an 88th cap to Root’s 119th.
Williamson has 24 Test centuries – two fewer than Root – but had been battling for form on tour. After a poor IPL campaign of one half-century and a strike-rate below 100, the right-hander suffered a golden duck in their solitary warm-up and was nicked off early in both innings at Lord’s by the England debutant Matt Potts.
Though New Zealand lost a tight series opener that could have gone either way, those two failures for Williamson were overcome as Daryl Mitchell (108) and Tom Blundell (96) at least fired in their second innings. England’s batting unit remains far more reliant on Root’s class – even if Ben Stokes and Ben Foakes supported his celestial unbeaten 115 in the run chase – and this is another case of hoping the support cast step up.
This did not occur in Nottingham last year, when Root’s scores of 64 and 109 against India – perhaps his finest Test century – made for another lone-hand performance in a rain-affected draw. As Root explained after hitting the winning runs at Lord’s last Sunday, he was also defying the strains of captaincy.
“You can end up taking it home and it can affect your personal situation, which Joe was very brave to say,” said Stokes, when asked if those comments served as a reminder of what he himself has signed up for as Root’s successor.
“Joe, without that added pressure of being captain, it was almost like he was 18 again and I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before he is snipping people’s socks again,” Williamson said. “It’s great he doesn’t have that mountain of added pressure of being captain on his shoulders, he can just go out there and score the runs like he does.”
At a training session that began with a penalty shootout and Brendon McCullum, the head coach, as one of the goalkeepers, Stokes once again named his XI a day before the toss. In theory, England are unchanged as they seek a first series win for their new captain, even if Matt Parkinson drops out after acting as a concussion sub for Jack Leach.
It looks a sensible call in terms of Leach’s incumbency and the history of Trent Bridge. Seamers are likely to lead the way, with Stuart Broad positively bouncing about his latest homecoming. But while hot takes were inevitable when English cricket briefly resumed its maddening relationship with leg-spin, Parkinson should not take his instant demotion after a surprise Test debut as an implied criticism.
A hard pitch with a tinge of green awaits at a ground where New Zealand have won once, through the genius of Richard Hadlee in 1986. Williamson was unsure of his team prior to his positive Covid test and though Colin de Grandhomme’s heel injury had opened up a slot for Henry Nicholls in the middle order after a calf injury, opener Hamish Rutherford has now joined the squad from Leicestershire.
Williamson’s uncertainty chiefly surrounded the make-up of his bowling attack. Though the medium pace of Mitchell could in theory pick up the slack in De Grandhomme’s absence, it may be that Neil Wagner, tenacious purveyor of left-arm seam, replaces the spin of Ajaz Patel.
Complicating this temptation to play an all-seam attack is the expectation of bright sunshine over the course of the five days. Like talk of a reduction in the number of Test matches played in future, it is a forecast that is slightly troubling the tourists.