Christchurch: New Zealand and England will have one eye on the 2003 World Cup while trying to outdo each other in the One-day series, which begins in Christchurch on Wednesday. Captains Stephen Fleming and Nasser Hussain have admitted they will be fine tuning their World Cup preparations during the five-match series, which is the first between the two sides for more than five years. England has revitalised its one-day form since the end of last season, winning eight out of 11 matches against Zimbabwe and India.
It brought to an end a miserable run in Limited Overs cricket that had seen Hussain's side lose 11 consecutive matches, culminating in a humiliating home series in 2001 in which it was outclassed by Pakistan and Australia. That experience led to a change of policy from the England management with old stagers Alec Stewart, Robert Croft, Mark Ealham and Alan Mullally ignored for the winter trips overseas. In their place players such as Jeremy Snape, Matthew Hoggard and Jamie Foster have emerged, with all-rounder Andrew Flintoff rediscovering the form that marked him out as a special player when he first came to prominence. Flintoff has replaced Darren Gough as England's quickest bowler and his pace, allied to his explosive batting - he made 45 off 25 balls in the win over Northern Districts at the weekend - has made him a crucial cog in his side's plans.
England's fight back in India, where it came back from 1-3 down to draw the series 3- 3, has given Hussain's side impetus and confidence going into the clashes with New Zealand, where it will be cheered on by more than 3000 travelling fans. "We are playing some good cricket and we want to prove that coming back in India was not a flash in the pan," Hussain said. "After the euphoria of India I thought we might be slightly below par, but when we come up against a good New Zealand side we will be up for it. "I'm pleased with the way we are gelling as a team and I'm pleased with the way we are showing character and fight but there is a lot more we have got to learn about One-day cricket.
You don't go from where we were ranked in the world to becoming world champions just in 11 matches and we are going to have to progress very slowly." New Zealand skipper Fleming needs to pick his team up after the disappointing end to their tri-nation series campaign, which after a superb start fizzled out in the final stages. The Black Caps enjoyed three successive wins over old foes Australia, but South Africa proved too strong winning the three match final 2-0. "Coming home was a massive plus for us and we are looking forward to showing what we learned in Australia," Fleming said. "In the last month we have played well against good sides and that has given us a good indication of where we are. We learnt some good lessons and we have to try to put them into practice.
In 12 months time I think we'll be a good side." England openers Nick Knight and Marcus Trescothick are both in princely form having each scored centuries against India, with Knight also making 126 against Northern Districts last Friday. The left-handers often gave England a good platform in Zimbabwe and it will be crucial for New Zealand to make an early breakthrough. Graham Thorpe is slowly putting his personal problems behind him and concentrating on his cricket again, which provides England with much needed consistency in the middle order. England has toyed with the idea of using Trescothick as wicket-keeper with Foster struggling to live up to replacing Stewart, but Hussain has confirmed the youngster will play under the lights on Wednesday night.
"We've given Marcus the gloves on a couple of occasions to cover ourselves but Jamie is our number one keeper and we will treat him as such," Hussain said. "As I see it we have got to give him as many opportunities as possible." New Zealand will unveil new fast bowling hope Ian Butler at Jade Stadium with the 20- year-old Northern Districts bowler entrusted with the new ball. Chris Cairns will provide experienced back-up while left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori will hope to strangle the England innings.
The New Zealand side contains far more One-day know how with the likes of Chris Harris, Chris Cairns and Fleming all vastly more experienced than the majority of their opponents. The series moves to Wellington at the weekend before matches in Napier, Auckland and Dunedin.