The first day of this Test was almost as good for England as the first day (of play, not the one where it rained) at Dunedin was bad. England will be grateful to Brendan McCullum for either not having the faith in his own lineup to bat first or for badly misreading the pitch, but either way he decided to bowl first upon winning the toss. After ninety overs on a pitch with little side-to-side movement and not as much pace as had been expected, that decision looks like the wrong one and very possibly a disastrously wrong one.
It has actually been an odd couple of days for McCullum. He said yesterday that he would bowl first if he won the toss and was apparently sincere in that statement. He also paid a compliment to Alastair Cook which was subsequently blown well out of proportion. He said that in his current form, Cook was probably the best batsman since Don Bradman. This was, inexplicably, taken as comparing Cook with Bradman despite very clearly saying that Cook is not as good as Bradman. Also overlooked was the important caveat of current form. And Cook’s form coming into the Test was four centuries in five Tests, certainly worthy of comparison to any batsman of the recent era. McCullum was certainly not helped by the press, but the fact so few bothered to actually see what he said blew what should have been an uncontroversial compliment out of proportion.
In the long run, however, it will be his decision to bowl first that causes him the most regret. His bowlers had not had a lot of time to recuperate from bowling for nearly two days at Dunedin and they were faced with another tough task here. Although Cook played a loose shot to depart fairly cheaply, neither Jonathan Trott or Nick Compton were in a mood to oblige. Both played very patiently, did not try to force the tempo and made sure that England got a good platform set. They actually did not get particularly bogged down either, despite their reputations. England’s run rate was well above three an over when Compton departed and by then the two had put on over two hundred together.
The Barmy Army started singing that England were halfway there when the 250 came up near the end of the day, but England should actually be aiming well over five hundred. From this platform and with the batsmen not only still in but still to come, 550 is certainly possible and perhaps even six hundred. The biggest issue is time. Run rate is not normally a major issue in the first innings of a Test match, but there is rain strongly forecast for the fourth and fifth days and it looks like a guarantee that the match will be shortened. England will have to put New Zealand in at some point tomorrow; if Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Joe Root and Matt Prior can score as quickly as they usually do then England will have time to put on three hundred before declaring very late in the day, but there is a chance that the attempt will result in a collapse and a sub-500 score. It is probably a chance England have to take, however.
It is certainly too early to suggest that New Zealand cannot win this Test, but they are in a position where they will probably have to play for a draw and hope for an opportunity to turn that into a win. But their bowlers have been disappointingly toothless after performing well recently and in the first innings of the series. They have had circumstances turn against them, but in the last 260 overs England have scored 688 runs for the loss of eight wickets. New Zealand are going to have to find something more than what they have been showing if they still want to pull off an upset.