England in the zone as lure of silverware adds spice to finale
It's all up for grabs now! As if we haven't found it hard enough to separate England and New Zealand on the field in recent months, so it has fittingly come to pass that the first five-match T20I series between senior Test nations is coming down to a winners-takes-all tie-breaker as well.
England 2, New Zealand 2. And only the decider at Auckland to come. You can't say you haven't been entertained by these two teams of late.
Okay, so it's not the World Cup final. But there's a special jeopardy attached to games such as these - with a series on the line and that extra pressure to perform - that will doubtless encourage the matchwinners on either side to tap into their A-games. With the World T20 only a year away, performances in contests such as these may be precisely what both captains are looking for as they finalise their 15s and separate the contenders from the also-rans.
And England, all of a sudden, are the team that is seemingly on a roll. Momentum is a fickle and over-rated thing at the best of times, particularly in the shortest format, but the bug-squashing dominance that England's batsmen exerted on Napier's short boundaries on Friday was a sight to behold.
Watch cricket on ESPN+
New Zealand v England is available in the US on ESPN+. Subscribe to ESPN+ and tune in to the T20I series.
In Dawid Malan, they were presented with a statement performance - a century of stunning power and no little frustration, as a man who has been flitting around the fringes of the white-ball squad for three years seized his chance to shine in the absence of the big three, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler.
Remarkably, his innings of 103 not out from 51 balls may not yet be enough to guarantee a starting berth in England's full-strength line-up. But in taking his T20I record to five fifties and a hundred in nine innings, he is making the sort of unanswerable case that Jonny Bairstow compiled in the 50-over squad prior to the World Cup. And that, more than anything, is what England were looking on this trip.
Can they now close it out and seal the silverware that remains the aim of every touring side, regardless of developmental priorities? New Zealand never really regrouped after their beasting in the field on Friday, but just as Malan and James Vince had hinted at their form in the earlier matches, so too do the Kiwis have a raft of players who've got their eye in in the course of the first four matches. Martin Guptill is getting there, Colin de Grandhomme can never be discounted, Tim Southee's savage range-hitting also hit the spot.
But on the bowling front, England will have been every bit as encouraged by the progress they have made on this trip. Chris Jordan's know-how with new ball and old has been a stand-out feature of every game he has played, and while Matt Parkinson's legspin endured a few lusty blows over the leg-side, Eoin Morgan is sure to have been encouraged by his wicket-taking gumption - five in six overs in his career to date.
Auckland's awkward dimensions promise another batsman's game - in particular the short fine-leg/long-off boundary that turns any error in line and length into a freebie. And if it's anything like the tri-series bunfight against Australia 18 months ago - 243 v 245 - we are in for a treat. And for England fans with nothing better to do this weekend, it's almost worth getting up in the middle of the night to pay attention...
England WLLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand LWWLL
In the spotlight
It's been a promising first tour from Tom Banton but Malan's exploits in Napier have raised the bar for those who hope to crack into the full-strength team in time for next year's World Cup. He is one day shy of his 21st birthday, so to say that time is on his side is an understatement - and a return of 49 runs from 31 balls in two innings is significantly better than par - but as he showed in seizing the Royal London final for Somerset last summer, there's more to come from this one. No time like the present to show it.
Where's he really at then? Martin Guptillendured a hellish World Cup, not remotely helped by his cruel role in the decisive moment in the Super Over, but in the course of this series, he's been swinging back into the zone. The runs haven't come in a torrent, but the tap looks ready to be turned back on again - as his 27 from 14 balls in Napier hinted. His levers can make a mockery of Auckland's dimensions, given half a chance.
It was a chastening day at Napier for New Zealand's bowlers, not least Daryl Mitchell, whose solitary over was dispatched for 25 runs, and the temptation to mix things up will be extreme. But with Lockie Ferguson's wicket-taking menace now concentrating on red-ball cricket with a view to a possible Test debut, New Zealand may opt for a return to Scott Kuggeleijn's extra pace, or the crafty all-round seam option of Jimmy Neesham.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Colin Munro, 3 Tim Seifert (wk), 4 Colin de Grandhomme, 5 Ross Taylor, 6 Jimmy Neesham, 7 Mitchell Santner, 8 Tim Southee (capt), 9 Ish Sodhi, 10 Trent Boult, 11 Blair Tickner /Scott Kuggeleijn
After his second TFC of the series, Lewis Gregory might be sweating on his role as England's designated finisher, although England may be loath to change a winning side, especially if the circumstances offer a chance to truly test his mettle if an opportunity arises. James Vince probably deserves one more chance to show what he's got after a couple of classy cameos, but the allure of silverware may limit the tinkering. Malan certainly hoped he had given Morgan a "headache", having only expected to play in the first four games.
England (possible): 1 Jonny Bairstow, 2 Tom Banton, 3 Dawid Malan/James Vince, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Sam Billings (wk), 6 Lewis Gregory, 7 Sam Curran, 8 Tom Curran, 9 Chris Jordan, 10 Matt Parkinson, 11 Pat Brown
Pitch and conditions
Known locally as the "postage stamp", Auckland offers another drop-in wicket of indeterminate quality, and little respite for error.
Stats and trivia
- New Zealand have won just one of their last seven T20I matches at Auckland, against Sri Lanka in January.
- England have won each of their two previous T20Is at the ground too, by 32 runs in 2008, and by 40 runs in 2013, when Eoin Morgan and Jonny Bairstow made 84 runs from 48 balls between them.
- Tim Southee requires one wicket to become the eighth man to claim 75 T20I wickets.
- Colin Munro requires five runs to draw level with Kane Williamson's run-tally of 1,505 for New Zealand in T20Is. Munro has played two more games (59 to 57), though Williamson has batted once more often.
"I don't think you can let there be any scarring. You don't completely sweep it under the carpet and you've got to learn from these experiences, but also you dust yourself off and there's a series to be won in Auckland." New Zealand's captain, Tim Southee is looking ahead rather than back
"That's probably why I chanced my arm; I thought if this is the last one I'd better make it count. Thankfully it came off, a few mis-hits went for six and a couple of them just landed in gaps so it worked out really well."
Dawid Malan vowed to go down swinging after fearing Napier was his last outing of the tour