After a rollercoaster cricketing summer on and off the pitch, New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum believes the team will be judged on their performance in the next five days against England in Auckland.
New Zealand face England in the third and deciding test at Eden Park, starting tomorrow amid a fine long-range forecast with the series up for grabs after draws in Dunedin and Wellington.
McCullum said the team felt as much pain as their supporters after being rolled for 45 in Cape Town on January 2, en route to a 2-0 series demolition by the world's No 1 side which left New Zealand a distant eighth in the world rankings. The Ross Taylor captaincy saga has loomed over the team since December, too.
"Since [South Africa] the way we've responded in short version cricket and in this [test] series as well, against an outstanding English team, has been really pleasing," McCullum said.
"The thing for us is to remain consistent in our performances and continue to trend in the right direction. You're going to have some bad days along the way but we've just got to make sure that were improving as a team and we're competing with the better teams around the world on a more consistent basis."
New Zealand beat South Africa in an ODI series then took England to deciders in the T20 and ODI series, which they both lost. But as test cricket returns to Eden Park for the first time in seven years, the five-day format remained the most important to players and fans, the skipper said.
"We can be competitive in the short forms of the game and even if we're going through a bad trot we can turn up and have a great performance and get a win in the column. Test cricket is something everyone wants to see you earn the right over a long period of time through the game, to perform and show that you're good enough.
"For the fans of NZ cricket and the purists, they want to see our test game improving and we do equally. That's why this series so far has been really good for us but we know we're going to be judged on how we finish at the end of this test match."
McCullum wouldn't confirm whether they would play an unchanged side, or if seamer Doug Bracewell would return after being ruled out of the first two tests when he cut his foot on a piece of glass.
Bracewell returned to the domestic one-day competition yesterday with figures of 1-55 off 10 overs for Central Districts. He didn't train with the side at Eden Park this morning due to flight delays from Christchurch, but remained in the mix.
"We still have to work out what is the best strategy for us. I think the three guys who have bowled for us in the series have operated brilliantly throughout the series. Doug has performed for us before so we have some good options there."
McCullum said it would tough to drop Tim Southee, Trent Boult or Neil Wagner to accommodate Bracewell. He confirmed spinner Bruce Martin would play again, thereby ruling out a four-pronged pace attack.
Having bowled first on winning the toss in Dunedin and Wellington, McCullum said that was his preference again, given New Zealand pitches offered most for the bowlers on day one.
Having inspected the Eden Park drop-in pitch, McCullum said: "Yeah, it looks like it has a little bit of green in it, which is okay, I think it will dry out over the next 24 hours but it looks good. With the short boundaries as well I expect there to be quite a few runs."
England will be without star batsman Kevin Pietersen (knee) which McCullum welcomed, and he said New Zealand were preparing to face either Jonny Bairstow or all-rounder Chris Woakes as Pietersen's replacement.
- Fairfax Media
Was a life ban from cricket a fair punishment for Lou Vincent?Related story: (See story)