There are indeed mitigating factors in England's dreadful plight in the Third Cornhill Test. They have had - so far anyway - the worst of a pitch which has not been as dodgy as everybody, including the groundsman, feared. They have been without their injured captain, Nasser Hussain, the man who was appointed only two matches ago to help give them a new direction. But that is about the limit of the extenuating circumstances, the weight of which would be further reduced by any decent lawyer pointing out that England won the toss and knew when they picked the squad that they were plumping for an inexperienced stand-in captain who was short of Test form.
The rest of the evidence provides only misery. New Zealand, the worst Test team in the world, have outplayed England throughout this moderate series. They lost the First Test having been ahead in it for most of the time, but those who suspected that this would undermine the Kiwis were hopelessly misguided. The tourists regrouped and in almost every session of Test cricket since have played with discipline and aggression.
Hats off to the Black Caps. But any salute in their direction must be accompanied by an incredulous stare at England. New Zealand might have made progress but to play them is not to play Australia. They have no stars, but the way they have competed in this rubber, indeed throughout this summer taking into account the World Cup as well, is a lesson to all sides of modest attainment. It is one England have signally failed to learn. It is to do with playing for each other, with taking responsibility. Playing with wit and charm are bonuses. England (and, it must be conceded, New Zealand) do not possess those qualities either. To them wit follows Easter.
This match has demonstrated, although these selectors would seem to require the combined sleuthing talents of Holmes, Poirot and Morse to bring them proof, that the selection policy is flawed. This may well be the best batting order in England but it is consistently failing. England have not held a first-innings lead for 13 Tests and in the first innings of the past 24 they have registered under 200.
The selectors' job, as it is time to remind them, is to unearth something better. It is no good bemoaning that something better does not exist. Tell that to the 10,000 (official figure) who turned up at Old Trafford yesterday, tell it to the 10,000 who did not fill the remaining seats, tell it to the marines. These selectors are under increasing pressure, as they may discover after a meeting in Manchester tonight.
Play was held up for 45 minutes at the start yesterday. Another 45 days might have been to the benefit of the home side. They embarked on the mission set out by their fall-guy, stand-in captain Mark Butcher, of restricting the opposition to 270 (total, not lead) by having the first ball of the day, from Andrew Caddick, dispatched for four. Peter Such and Phil Tufnell were soon in tandem: the spin twins. But there was neither turn nor bounce for them. All they found at the other end were obdurate Kiwis. Matthew Bell and Nathan Astle announced their willingness to grind it out in every forward prop.
Astle was much the more forceful of the two. He took the occasional risk. He plundered two sixes from Such, one a slog which would probably be awarded a grant under the terms of the EC's common agricultural policy, and another later on from Tufnell which was barely less rustic. But for the bulk of their formative time together the pair milked runs, gave England nothing. England bowled a mite too waywardly too often.
Bell's previous highest score in his four Test matches had been 26 not out. To say that he had cruised past that would be to convey the wrong impression of his style.But he was comfortable in his progress, serene though it was not. It was not compelling Test cricket but the purists should not whinge. New Zealand were consolidating and it was as effective as England were ineffective. They ticked round at three an over for most of the way, though they became quicker. The 51 they scored in the fifth hour of the innings was the most productive 60 minutes of the match.
The third-wicket partnership had reached 153, and Bell had done enough to deserve a maiden century when he tried something positive against Dean Headley with the new ball and skied the shot to mid-on. Astle at least completed the fifth hundred of his career with his eighth four from the 173rd ball he faced. He immediately pulled the 174th to long leg where Such took the catch running and, eventually, sprawling forward.
This represented almost a collapse and when Roger Twose was lbw to Such and Adam Parore was held by Butcher at shortish mid-wicket it definitely had the makings of one. Unfortunately for England, New Zealand were by then 132 on with Chris Cairns striding purposefully to the crease. He whacked a couple of sixes, Craig McMillan hoisted high and long too and reached his first fifty against England.
England may take heart from the fact that this is where they turned round the series last year with an unlikely fighting draw against South Africa. But the suspicion grows with the new coach, Duncan Fletcher, not taking over until October that they are for the moment rudderless. And that's no excuse.
SCOREBOARD FROM OLD TRAFFORD
England won toss
England - First Innings 199 (M R Ramprakash 69no; D J Nash 3-46, C Z Harris 2-16)
New Zealand - First Innings
M J Horne b Caddick 39
(58 min, 58 balls, 7 fours)
M D Bell c Atherton b Headley 83
(Top-edged attempted pull to mid-on; 344 min, 224 balls, 7 fours)
*S P Fleming lbw b Such 38
(82 min, 66 balls, 5 fours)
N J Astle c Such b Caddick 101
(Fine running catch off pull to fine leg; 225 min, 175 balls, 8 fours, 3 sixes)
R G Twose lbw b Such 20
(Pushed forward, bat tucked behind pad; 83 min, 57 balls, 2 fours, 1 six)
C D McMillan not out 58
(172 min, 122 balls, 5 fours, 2 sixes)
A C Parore c Butcher b Such 10
(Flick to short midwicket; 10 min, 10 balls, 2 fours)
C L Cairns not out 29
(102 min, 77 balls, 1 four, 2 sixes)
Extras (b1, lb17, nb3) 21
Total (for 6, 131 overs) 399
Fall: 1-46 (Horne), 2-110 (Fleming), 3-263 (Bell), 4-280 (Astle), 5-321 (Twose), 6-331 (Parore).
To bat: C Z Harris, D L Vettori, D J Nash.
Bowling: Caddick 31-9-97-2 (nb2) (11-4-29-1 3-0-17-0 6-0-28-1 11-5-23- 0), Headley 31-4-115-1 (nb1) (4-1-21-0 6-1-27-0 7-0-27-0 7-1-18-1 7-1- 22-0), Tufnell 32-8-67-0 (9-3-22-0 1-0-4-0 8-2-11-0 5-1-14-0 1-0-1-0 1- 0-3-0 7-2-12-0), Such 34-11-81-3 (19-6-42-1 1-1-0-0 2-1-1-0 9-1-37-2 3-2-1-0), Hick 1-0-8-0, Butcher 2-0-13-0 (one spell each).
Progress: Third day: bad light delayed start until 11.46am. 150 in 203 min, 49.4 overs. Lunch 186-2 (Bell 54, Astle 43) 61 overs. 200 in 261 min, 65.2 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 247-2. 250 in 333 min, 81.1 overs. 300 in 388 min, 92.3 overs. Late tea: 302-4 (Twose 10, McMillan 12) 94 overs. 350 in 454 min, 108.3 overs.
Bell 50: 240 min, 158 balls, 5 fours. Astle 50: 115 min, 92 balls, 4 fours, 2 sixes. 100: 224 min, 174 balls, 8 fours, 3 sixes. McMillan 50: 144 min, 96 balls, 5 fours, 2 sixes.
Umpires: D R Shepherd and R B Tiffin. TV Replay Umpire: K E Palmer
Match Referee: P L van der Merwe
First Test: England won by 8 wkts
Second Test: New Zealand won by 9 wkts
Fourth Test: The Oval, 19-23 August Compiled: Jo KingReuse content