England 39 for 2 (Burns 24*, Root 6*) trail New Zealand 375 (Latham 105, Mitchell 73, Watling 55, Broad 4-73) by 336 runs
England’s dicey fortunes took another turn for the precarious on the second day at Hamilton, as New Zealand’s seamers found movement and energy with the new ball in a torrid final hour, to consolidate their grip on the series after another four-and-a-half sessions of hard graft from their batsmen had visibly drained their visitors’ resolve.
By the close, England were clinging on through their under-pressure captain, Joe Root – who has rarely felt more desperate for a score – and Rory Burns, who survived two dropped catches and an under-edged drive past the off stump in scratching his way to an unbeaten 24. Ugly runs will do just fine, of course, but the hounding that England endured in their 18 evening-session overs merely compounded the difference in confidence between the two camps.
Though a late flurry of wickets (and runs) in New Zealand’s own innings had hinted at a pitch that had quickened up from the slightly spurious greentop of the first morning, the contest came alive from the moment that Tim Southee and Matt Henry were handed New Zealand’s new ball.
Dom Sibley had barely found his bearing when he was thumped a savage blow on the helmet by Southee – sconed on the badge just as he had been in England’s warm-up in Whangarei – and four overs later he swished loosely across the line to be pinned lbw for 4.
Joe Denly barely endured any longer: Henry had already been denied Burns’ scalp when Ross Taylor shelled a diving chance at first slip, but Denly couldn’t escape his clutches, grazing an edge for BJ Watling to cling on low behind the stumps. Burns, his balance all over the place, was lucky to survive again when Jeet Raval flung himself at an airy clip at midwicket, and England could well have lost a third to the final ball of the day when New Zealand’s master of chaos, Neil Wagner, forced Root to flinch a lifter just wide of leg gully.
The intent New Zealand displayed with the ball made light of a surface that England’s own bowlers (with the honourable exception of Stuart Broad) had at times made to look like a featherbed. But moreover it was a tribute to the tactics employed by New Zealand’s batsmen – particularly their first-day centurion Tom Latham, and today’s sixth-wicket mainstays, Watling and the debutant Daryl Mitchell.
Between them, that trio marshalled a first-innings total of 375 that spanned a hefty 129.1 overs. It ended up being some way shy of the 201 overs they had ground out at Mount Maunganui last week, largely thanks to Broad, whose cross-seaming screamer from the final ball before tea dislodged the steadfast Watling for 55 from 192 balls and set in motion a frantic race through the tail as the final five wickets fell for 60 inside 13 overs.
Up until that finale, England had gone through their motions with as much energy as they could muster. Chris Woakes was line-and-length personified in another economical display, while Jofra Archer occasionally touched 140kph in another barrel-scraping display from a hard-worked thoroughbred who desperately looks in need of a rest. His fortunes were best summed up in a lively joust with Mitchell Santner, who twice in an over hoicked his short balls over fine leg for six, on the second occasion taking out a luckless security guard who had been looking the other way behind the rope.
But ultimately it was the sight of Ben Stokes, his dodgy knee already causing him so much discomfort, charging in time and again in a bid to be his side’s game-changer once again, that was the clearest indication of the direction in which this contest is currently headed. After limping out of the attack after two overs on the first day, he defied logic by returning for a further 11 today. Lion-hearted and loyal to his captain, maybe, but wicketless and futile at the same time, especially with four Tests in South Africa looming within the month.
Stokes’ involvement was at least an indication that England believed the contest was not out of reach. And at 191 for 5 in the first hour of the morning, it had indeed looked rather promising, after Broad had induced a rare misjudgement from Tom Latham to peg back his off stump for 105, before Henry Nicholls’ flapped a Sam Curran bouncer down Broad’s throat at backward square leg.
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But then again, England had thought they were in the contest in Mount Maunganui as well, where New Zealand had been tottering at 197 for 5 before Watling and co cranked their innings up to a monstrous 615 for 9 declared. And while such riches proved to be out of reach here, their runs on the board felt mightily significant by the close.
The bulk of those were mined from Watling’s sixth-wicket stand of 124 with the new boy Mitchell, whose handful of cameos in the T20 series were scant preparation for the emotion and pressure of a Test debut innings, but who proved very much up to the challenge. He took his time to get going, digging deep for eight scoreless deliveries (with his mum filming them all on her phone) before lumping a rare Woakes long-hop through midwicket for a very cathartic first boundary.
And thereafter he was away – not in the sense of a free-flowing rampage, but in the “block, block, cash in” sense of a man who trusted his technique, the pitch, his team-mate and his team’s tactics, to force England to dig deep, exhaust themselves, and offer up the odd ball that had to be put away – such as the monstrous golf-swing of a straight drive with which Mitchell climbed into an otherwise perfectly serviceable legbreak from Denly that travelled the best part of 110m back over the bowler’s head.
There wasn’t much of that ilk to be seen from either batsman throughout their alliance. Watling had one significant let-off, on 1, when the stand-in keeper Ollie Pope was unable to stay low enough to scoop a low edge off Curran, and New Zealand were able to add just 24 runs in the first hour after lunch – a-nip-and-tuck period in which two quick wickets at 280-odd for 7 could well have dragged their innings quickly back into the mire.
But that just never looked like happening. The new ball came and went with the minimum of alarm, and as the second hour wore on, so the scoring opportunities became more frequent. Mitchell motored to his maiden Test fifty with a brace of boundaries in a tired over from Stokes, the latter a sweetly timed pull through midwicket that earned a wave from a very proud mum, and Watling passed his own landmark soon afterwards – crunching a Curran half-volley through the covers.
But then came the one that misbehaved from Broad – a snorter that fizzed off a startled splice to Burrns in the gully, and suddenly the door was open once more. Broad kicked his way through it after the resumption, persuading Mitchell to top-edge a bouncer to Archer on the square leg boundary for 73 before Woakes found Southee’s edge to give Pope that overdue maiden keeper’s catch. Archer added his first wicket of the match, and only his second of an arduous series, when Santner chanced his arm once too often, and one ball later Wagner chipped a Curran full-toss to midwicket.
But that rush of breakthroughs proved a double-edged omen for England. By the close, with their innings in serious jeopardy, they might even have missed the ennui of New Zealand’s mid-innings go-slow.
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