Auckland, day three: New Zealand 35-3

Today was very probably the day that England lost a Test series to New Zealand. They resumed on 50-2, trailing by 393, and never got going. The New Zealand seamers bowled well, got the ball to swing and bowled England out for 204 before Brendan McCullum declined to enforce the follow-on.

New Zealand bowled consistently well all day; it was their best day with the ball in the series and actually the first time we have seen what I expected from them before the series. They pitched the ball up and got the ball to swing both ways and the one that came back in caused no end of problems for England. Four of the top seven were out lbw to inswingers, two each to Trent Boult and Tim Southee. England should have batted better, but really what today shows is that they ought to have bowled better on the first day. I said at the time that they were consistently too short, but today the New Zealand bowlers showed just how much more effective the fuller length is. This has also led to a lot of remarks on Twitter about the pitch not being as flat as was originally claimed. (Generally these have taken the form of snide remarks.) But the movement has generally not come from the pitch, but from the air. It may be that the conditions were not conducive on the first day, but it cannot be disputed that New Zealand did bowl better than England did. The pitch itself is still generally flat, though it is starting to keep a bit low and maybe break up a bit.

Alastair Cook’s decision to bowl first is now looking a very poor one indeed and although it is hard to say now that things would not have turned out better for England if they had batted first, I still don’t think it was as bad of a decision as some others do. Certainly there are some who put England’s predicament at Cook’s feet, but the fact that the tactics did not come off does not by itself mean that it was wrong to take the risk. The fact is that England have been outplayed and there is nothing to suggest that they would not have collapsed if they had batted first.

But at least in the immediate future there the spotlight will have shifted to the decision by McCullum not to enforce the follow-on. England were bowled out still 239 in arrears, but more importantly having lost their last four wickets for just four runs between them. What had been a faint hope of saving the follow-on had very suddenly vanished and England were reeling. The decision to enforce the follow-on seemed obvious, but McCullum opted against it and it is not immediately clear why. Even if England had gone back out to bat and put on a decent second innings total it is very hard to see a way they could have really put New Zealand under pressure. Even a score of 400 would have only given New Zealand 160 to win and probably only left a session and a half in which to try to bowl them out. A few quick wickets and the match would have been effectively over. As it is, New Zealand batted again and it is England who took three quick wickets and now have a faint sniff of hope.

it is only a very faint sniff, mind. But New Zealand were at one point 8-3 in their second innings and finished the day by scoring four runs in the last eight overs. England were forced to attack by the match position and unsurprisingly it was a better strategy than what they had been employing. Even though New Zealand recovered to 35-3 by stumps, England have effectively taken 23 overs out of the match as New Zealand were too tied down to really get anywhere. New Zealand will probably want at least another hundred and maybe even a few more (160 would make the target an even 400) and at the rate they are going that will take almost two sessions and there is still an outside chance that England could bowl them out and maybe find themselves with a reasonable target. It is very unlikely, of course, but there is no doubt that New Zealand would be happier if England were only trying to escape with a draw.

The more optimistic of England supporters might actually think back to the Old Trafford Test of 2008. In that match England were bowled out for 202, barely avoiding the follow-on, but responded by bowling New Zealand out for 114 and chasing just under 300 to win by six wickets. England have a tougher ask this time as they trail by sixty more runs and even if they did not would still be strong underdogs, but it is something about which to think.

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