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Lions hit Queenstown

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27 February 2009

By Charles Randall in Queenstown

THE England Lions landed in a French-made ATR72 prop plane in front of The Remarkables mountain range at Queenstown, a dreamland hosting the first four-day Test against New Zealand A, starting on Sunday.

The cricket venue makes the St Lawrence Ground at Canterbury look like the plains of Kansas, and the old gold town on Lake Wakatipu has effortlessly reinvented itself as a tourist centre. The mountain location shots appearing in the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy has only intensified visitor numbers.

Many of the Lions players are living a dream. Joe Denly and Robbie Joseph, for example, are developing fledgling careers, whereas the Middlesex wicketkeeper Ben Scott has made his maiden international tour at the age of 27, though his initial reaction to his call-up seemed to be irritation before the enormity of the event hit him.

Scott had started major renovations in his flat at Sunbury. "I didn’t have any inkling at all I would be selected," he said. "I had mixed feelings because I was heavily involved in DIY stuff at home -- right in the middle of it. I had just ripped my bathroom out and ripped my bedroom to pieces."

But he was not going to become the first man to refuse an England tour to plumb a bathroom. "I was a bit struck initially, but obviously after sleeping on it I realised I was honoured to get the call to go to New Zealand to progress my career. I was over the moon."

Apart from finding out what makes international tours click -- curiosity whetted by stories from his Middlesex team-mates Andrew Strauss and Shah -- Scott said he was relishing the chance to play with, and not against, the most respected of opponents, including Robert Key, the Lions captain.

"In county cricket against Kent all I see usually is Rob’s rear and the ball flying all over the place," Scott chuckled. "As a keeper having fast bowlers like Saj Mahmood and Liam Plunkett bowling towards you at 90mph for your side instead of having to go out and face them is nice. It makes you feel you’re up there at a higher level."

The news became even better for Scott when he realised he would be first-choice wicketkeeper for the entire tour. Before the two weeks of preparation in Christchurch, he was told he was to become the only gloveman in the tour party due to the impending departure of Steven Davies to the senior Caribbean tour as a reserve to Tim Ambrose, promoted when Matt Prior returned to Sussex for the birth of his son.

This was significant because Scott would have been reserve to Davies for most games, and almost certainly for the opening match in Queenstown. Not playing can become the greatest frustration of touring, as Scott’s Middlesex colleague Owais ’Ace’ Shah knows only too well.

Scott was expecting to be watching from the boundary for most of the five veeks of a tour that would be taking in Queenstown, Christchurch, Palmerston North and New Plymouth. "That mirrors what international cricket is going to be like," he said. "If players get to go up to the first team, they might not be involved. ’Ace’ has been on loads of tours and not picked a bat up in a game. Now he has been given a go I hope he does well because he deserves it. That’s what we have to learn."

Picture courtesy of Getty Images