England were in a desperate position at the close of the fourth day of a match dominated by a vibrant New Zealand team.
Battered and bruised in the field by a second century in the match from Peter Fulton and McCullumed into oblivion for the umpteenth time in the past two months, England were set the notional target of 484 to win – uncharted territory in that regard for any side in the history of the game – but more realistically 143 overs to bat out and claim a share of the three-match series.
They do have history of surviving such a challenge, most recently the 141 overs they used up against South Africa in Cape Town three years ago, when Paul Collingwood – Brigadier Block – spent four and a half hours over 40 and Ian Bell as long over 78.
As the shadows lengthened though, and the teams left the field, the innings, at 90 for four, was in tatters once more, surely along with their hopes. They lost Nick Compton in the third over of the innings and later Jonathan Trott, a second bastion, to the first delivery purveyed from round the wicket by the indefatigable Neil Wagner, a wide ball at which the batsman drove without due care and attention and edged, an uncharacteristic lapse in his concentration: it was a dismissal that had its roots, perhaps, in the time spent in the field watching the ball sail into the stands.
It appeared that the captain Alastair Cook had the resolve at least to see things through to the close, with Bell digging in alongside him. But like Trott even Cook's powers of concentration wavered and with fewer than four overs of the day remaining he too drove vigorously at Kane Williamson's offbreak where he need not have done, and Dean Brownlie held a stupendous reflex catch at slip. Cook had made 43 from 145 balls. One further wicket went to what proved the final ball of the day, when Steve Finn, the nightwatchman who survived more than two sessions in Dunedin, prodded a catch, from Williamson once more, to gully where Tim Southee held a second reflex catch. Such things stick when you are on a high. Bell at least remained, with eight runs from 89 balls.
England have been unravelled by the New Zealanders at Eden Park, outbatted by Fulton, a revelation after a four-year absence (to himself as much as anyone no doubt) and recipient of a message from the prime minister for his efforts; outbowled by Trent Boult, Southee and Bruce Martin; outfielded (although that might be harsh for England's rarely flagged under the assault and Matt Prior was terrific throughout); and certainly outgeneralled by McCullum.
It is easy to captain when you have a team on the ropes but New Zealand were able to reach that stage in the first place through his proactivity. The pity is that few Aucklanders have bothered to turn up, even over the weekend, for this has the makings not just of a team that punches above its weight (the default position for Kiwi sides of the past) but with a couple of additions – another top flight batsman for instance, and the return of pacemen such as Doug Bracewell – could be regarded as one of the best around. Indeed the return series in England, in May, can no longer be looked at as the safe bet it is viewed as by many. A loss here and England will have slipped down the rankings to third place, below India.
Until McCullum pulled the plug on the innings at 241 for six, with a little more than an hour to tea, England had been reduced to rubble. New Zealand already had a sizeable lead at the start of play and after a little early reconnaissance, with licence then, and no consequences, to swing like the Krankies on a Saturday night, batting becomes easier.
England did try a different strategy to Fulton, whose disdain for the offside is matched by his penchant for the onside, by setting a short midwicket and bowling straighter. It might have brought his wicket when he had 32, Anderson unable to cling on in that very position, but it was the last offering he gave until Joe Root held a mishit at long on.
By then he had made 110, his last 60 runs coming from 44 balls, including five sixes as he opened his considerable shoulders: his stand with McCullum was worth 94 from 81 balls and at one time England employed every fielder on the fence except Prior, who in order to do so would have been compelled to hand in his gloves and pads. Later, as England defended, New Zealand had every man bar one around the bat.
Once again they were monstered by McCullum, who should become the threat of choice for errant children: "Be quiet or Brendon McCullum will come and belt your attempted yorker into the stands." In the course of 10 innings in all formats he has made 576 runs at considerably more than a run a ball, hit seven half-centuries and 24 sixes, three of them in his unbeaten 67 here. It is an astounding run of form given the manner in which he plays.
As for his team, they managed 16 sixes in this match, just two short of the record of 18 by West Indies (against England in Antigua in 1986) for a single team in a Test. England's only one thus far has come from Stuart Broad.
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