This was England’s first 50-over meeting with New Zealand since the World Cup final four years ago but if Jos Buttler’s men do go on to repeat that success in India in the coming months, it will not be remembered as the springboard.
On a humid day in Cardiff, the tourists came through what was supposed to be both sides’ most intense pre-tournament workout so far without breaking much sweat, glorious unbeaten hundreds from Devon Conway and Daryll Mitchell inspiring a comfortable eight-wicket victory in the first of four ODIs, with 26 balls to spare.
For England, Ben Stokes marked his return to the 50-over side with one of four half-centuries, Buttler top-scoring with 72, while Dawid Malan and Liam Livingstone showed their contrasting skillsets at either end of the innings. But, having asked to bat first on a surface that made timing tricky, the hosts were largely kept in check, in the end doing well to reach 291 for six without ever threatening to take the game away. With the ball, they were loose up top and, missing Adil Rashid to cramp through the middle overs, looked worryingly short of ideas.
There is unlikely to be much panic yet from Buttler and Matthew Mott yet. Though this marked the start of England’s World Cup build-up proper, this was still far from the team that would start a must-win tournament game tomorrow - or even the opener against the Black Caps in Ahmedabad on October 5. First-choice opening pair Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy were absent, with minor shoulder and back tweaks, while Moeen Ali, Sam Curran and Mark Wood were all left out of a fact-finding selection in a bowling attack that included an ODI debut for Gus Atkinson.
Perhaps most crucially of all, Buttler was denied the services of Rashid on a turning pitch for much of the evening, the star spinner, amid raging debate over places in England’s World Cup squad, still the one player whose shoes cannot be filled.
Buttler turned to his ace-card as early as he dared, Rashid dismissing Will Young with a wonderful first ball after he and Conway had given New Zealand’s chase a flying start in the powerplay, Reece Topley’s two overs for 25 with the new-ball setting an unwanted tone.
Hobbling off after only three overs for treatment, though, Rashid could not bowl again until New Zealand were within 89 runs of victory and just one more wicket down, allowing Mitchell to charge. A regular thorn in England’s side, the all-rounder greeted Rashid’s comeback with a hefty blow down the ground for six and never let up, Conway moving to his hundred in quieter fashion as his partner motored through the gears, hitting seven sixes in his brutal 118 from 91 balls. Conway added his one and only maximum off what proved the final ball, batting through the innings to end unmoved on 111. Rashid, asked to bowl with the field up in a last roll of the dice, finished with grim figures of one for 70 from eight overs.
England’s own innings had been a bits-and-pieces affair, though a month out from the World Cup, the sharing of runs across a lineup readjusting to the rhythms of this format is at least no bad thing.
Without Bairstow and Roy, the narrative that dominated the recent T20 series was cast straight into focus as Malan and Harry Brook, potential rivals for seat on the plane to India, were asked to form a makeshift opening pair.
Brook failed to make use of an opportunity as unfamiliar as it was unexpected, the Yorkshireman having never opened in List-A cricket previously, but Malan looked in as good touch as at any point all summer, driving nicely on his way to the joint-fastest of his ODI fifties, from 49 balls. Roy’s form remains the equation’s biggest unknown, but after the first of the only four matches England have to realistically solve their squad conundrum, the solution is no more clear.
From a novel partnership up top, a more familiar one soon took hold, Buttler and Stokes brought together by an out-of-sorts Joe Root’s dismissal after drinks and, at 101 for three, faced with a rebuild that offered easy comparisons to 2019. Their attempt, however, was throwback to a retro era of ODI cricket, the middle overs milked rather than plundered as two of England’s deadliest white-ball hitters at one stage went more than six overs without troubling the fence.
Spinner Rachin Ravindra impressed, the 23-year-old making use of a tricky deck to finish with figures of three wickets, including those of Root and Stokes, while New Zealand’s seamers were clever, denying England’s batters the tempting straight hit to the short boundaries down the ground. By the end of the night, Mitchell, in particular, had made them look miniscule.