This was not one of England's finest days.
With New Zealand put in to bat by Alastair Cook they suffered through a day in the field that yielded a maiden Test century, 124 not out, for Peter Fulton at the age of 34, another approaching for the brilliant young tyro Kane Williamson who left the field unbeaten on 83, and the single wicket, to Steve Finn, of Hamish Rutherford. Already, by the close of the first day, New Zealand, at 250 for one, had the solid foundations of a draw and thus a drawn series that one suspects has been the primary ambition since the first two matches ended in stalemate, with anything beyond that a bonus. To this end they have had a compliant groundsman who, while capable of producing a drop-in pitch with genuine pace and bounce, has seen how Steve Finn got the ball through during the limited overs matches and appears to have top-dressed this offering with Mogadon. The bowlers, who have suffered their way through the featherbeds in Dunedin and Wellington, were made to do so again now in Eden Park, where they would get more help from a surly teenager asked to tidy his room. It might help New Zealand's cause and hinder that of England but it does very little for the game as a spectacle.
The debate will rage long and hard on whether Cook's decision to bowl first constitutes a blunder, and no doubt there will be the usual kneejerk reaction that inevitably accompanies such a day. It is a facile way of thinking. Nothing proves a decision such as this to be right or wrong until there is a much broader picture on which to draw.
England might reasonably have expected more assistance from a pitch that because of the Warriors rugby league team's match on the ground last Saturday would not have been put in place until Sunday at the earliest and must have had some residual moisture in it as a result. This is the first Test match at Eden Park in seven years so there is no real precedent on which to draw in terms of its behaviour. Even so it is the nature of drop-in pitches elsewhere generally to improve as matches wear on, as indeed it is for many natural surfaces: the days of always batting regardless are long since gone and sides now see bowling first as just as important in establishing a hold on a match as supposed scoreboard pressure.
The fullness of time may prove it a bad decision should New Zealand's bowlers make their way through the England order when their turn comes, or Cook and his advisers may be vindicated by England racking up a large total themselves, but it it would not be unreasonable to expect the most help for the seamers, whatever that might be, to be on the first day. Brendon McCullum has said he would have adopted the same strategy himself, as indeed he did in the first two Tests. It is just the modern way.
Nothing though should be taken away from Fulton, Two Metre Peter, whose Test career, which began in 2006, has been resurrected after a four-year absence, and as a makeshift opener. In the first two matches he had moderate success with one half-century but the feeling was that he was static, a bat-hanger, and did not make use of his height. But here, over the course of six hours' batting, he scarcely put a foot wrong, discrete outside offstump when England attacked him there and prolific on the legside both when the ball was pitched up or when dropped short. Only twice was he troubled: first, early on, when there was still hardness in the ball, Jimmy Anderson found the outside edge and the ball flew high to the right of Joe Root at third slip who could not quite get there; and once, off Anderson again, when an attempted hook spiralled high off the top edge but carried for six over the minuscule fine leg boundary.
He took his chances too against Monty Panesar – who had kept his place, despite a temptation to go with four seamers – clubbing him into the stand and once to the longest boundary. His century, reached with a single to mid-on, was marked with nice understatement and a look of mild relief that his career had gained some fulfilment.
Williamson, on the other hand, is a young player with the cricket world before him. The contrast at the crease between he and Fulton, during their unbroken second wicket stand of 171, could scarcely be greater. But diminutive batsmen, or the best ones at any rate, tend to be the best judges of length simply because they have to be. Essentially Williamson is a proficient cutter and puller as might be expected. Bowlers though will tend to overcompensate to someone who hangs back in the crease, and as such he is very quick and solid into the drive. In simple terms he looks a composed, solid, technically sound all-round batsman who might be troubled only by bounce on more flirty pitches than this.
The England seamers found no swing or seam movement and the bounce died once the hardness left the ball. Reverse swing is not an option with a thick lush outfield and no used pitches on which to scuff the ball. So they were reduced to attempting novelty field-placings, angles of attack, 10 minutes of short stuff – anything to break the rhythm of batting – to no avail until they took the second new ball 10 overs from the close and Anderson and Broad managed to sneak a couple past the bat of tiring
Panesar meanwhile twirled away, trying to mix things up occasionally and suffering when he did so. This is not turning into one of his more prolific series but a first day pitch is no place to be expecting any spinner to run through a team.
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