WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The fitness of all-rounder Ben Stokes will be a key factor for England as they seek to win the second match against New Zealand in Christchurch and improve on a woeful record that has seen them lose 10 of their last 12 overseas tests.
Stokes hurt his back during the one-dayers that preceded the two-test series and did not bowl in the first match at Eden Park, which England lost by an innings and 49 runs.
The 26-year-old is still undergoing checks to determine whether he is fit to be England’s fifth bowler in the second test at Hagley Oval from March 30-April 3, which takes place with the cricket world in uproar over Australia’s ball tampering scandal in South Africa.
Stokes batted at number five at Eden Park, scoring a patient 66 in the second innings and sharing in several partnerships that had threatened to snatch an unlikely draw after the tourists were bowled out for 58 in their first innings.
Stokes’ knock had showed coach Trevor Bayliss he could comfortably bat in the top-five.
“The way he went about it over the last home summer, it stood out that he had the ability to be a world-class number five,” Bayliss told reporters earlier this week. “I think we saw that again.
“When it was tough and under a lot of a pressure, he led from the front doing the hard yards.”
Stokes’ fitness to bowl is likely to determine whether fellow all-rounder Moeen Ali retains his spot, with Bayliss putting the pressure on the off-spinner.
Moeen struggled in England’s 4-0 Ashes loss in Australia late last year, scoring just 179 runs at 19.88. More importantly, he took just five wickets at an average of 115.
Moeen scored 0 and 28 in the first test and was unable to get any appreciable turn on the drop-in pitch at Eden Park.
“I’m sure he’s disappointed with the way he’s gone,” Bayliss said. “This winter away I’m sure hasn’t gone how he would have liked. I’m sure that will be a discussion.”
If Stokes is able to bowl, the visitors could give uncapped batsman Liam Livingstone his test debut to strengthen the batting, while left-arm spinner Jack Leach, a late call up for the injured Mason Crane, could also earn his first cap.
The match also has huge significance for New Zealand, who have not beaten England in a series since 1999 when they lost the first match at Edgbaston before winning at Lord’s and the Oval to clinch the four-match series 2-1.
“This is a huge opportunity, you don’t go in thinking about drawing it,” New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said.
“It’s been a big series, we’ve been planning for the last six months and need to make sure we use the next few days wisely.”
Hesson’s plans were affected on Wednesday by the withdrawal of legspinner Todd Astle due to a side strain.
Astle, who was replaced by Ish Sodhi, took 3-39 in England’s second innings, which included two wickets in the final session as New Zealand pushed for victory.
The change would lengthen New Zealand’s tail with Astle a superior batsman to Sodhi and Tim Southee expected to move up to number eight.
Sodhi, however, has been in a rich vein of form since the one-day series with innings hauls of 7-98, 7-30 and 5-32 in two first class matches.
“It was good to get a chance to bowl some overs out in the middle so I go into the test, if I get a chance to play, with a bit of momentum ... and some overs under the belt,” Sodhi told reporters in Christchurch.
“As a young spinner learning your art, the best way to do it is to bowl as much as you can.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Peter Rutherford