Cricket: Kiwis must swallow bitter fruit

Graeme Wright at Edgbaston watches and winces with his compatriots
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The Independent Online
MAYBE IT was innate New Zealand pessimism when it comes to Test cricket. Maybe it was superstition. When New Zealand recorded their two Test match victories in England, in 1983 and 1986, I was not on the ground on the day.

So the fact that I was at Edgbaston yesterday, along with the sunshine and an absence of low cloud and humidity, had me thinking that the odds were against New Zealand when so many favoured a Kiwi victory.

Something about the New Zealanders' body language early on had me wondering if, deep down, they harboured similar doubts. Or a similar lack of belief. Back in November 1997 they had competed on equal terms for four days against an Australian team that had recently retained the Ashes in England. On the fifth day the effort fell away and Australia won by 186 runs. New Zealand then lost the Second Test at Perth by an innings before drawing the Third Test in Hobart with some enterprising cricket. Set 288 to win in two sessions they were 65 runs short at the close. Their approach won admiration, but not the Test match.

In New Zealand's defence it can be argued that the conditions betrayed them yesterday. Certainly the ball did not move in the air as much as it did on Friday, and the pitch, while occasionally unpredictable, seemed slower.

The short ball, as it had on Thursday, sat up rather than flew. Other than flying off Alex Tudor's bat, that is.

Within half an hour yesterday it looked apparent that the New Zealand bowlers would need to do more than put the ball there or thereabouts, leaving the pitch to do the business. England's target of 208 did not look such an Everest as the Surrey team-mates, Tudor and Mark Butcher, began to pick off easy and early boundaries. Suddenly the match became a "strangle" situation and the Kiwi bowlers, swing, seam and spin, proved incapable of tightening the noose. They did not look as if they could force a win in the way that Australians would in similar circumstances.

When it required dot ball after dot ball to put pressure on England, the fast bowlers could not resist the short-pitched delivery that Tudor, in particular, despatched to the crowd's appreciation and satisfaction. Not until 10 minutes before lunch did a New Zealand bowler deliver a maiden over. There were 23 fours in the morning session, and, in all, more boundaries came yesterday than England and New Zealand combined had managed in their two innings on frantic Friday.

How New Zealand go on from here will reveal the character of what is essentially a young side. In Australia 18 months ago Stephen Fleming admirably maintained a bold, risk-taking approach. English conditions, however, also require discipline and concentration, neither of which was much in evidence in their batting here. The top order batting has to build a start so that the likes of Fleming, Craig McMillan, Chris Cairns and Adam Parore can play their naturally expressive games.

Lord's, where the next Test is played, should not be the minefield that Edgbaston was. But this will put an extra onus on Geoff Allott, Simon Doull and Cairns to get among the England batsmen in a way they failed to yesterday. Doull, so much New Zealand's hero on Friday, appeared to lack conviction yesterday. On Friday, swinging the ball both ways, he delivered a master class at which Andy Caddick was an attentive pupil. In less conducive conditions, Doull almost looked out of his class. Allott persevered, but Lord's may be time for Cairns to stand up and be counted as a Test cricketer. His country needs him.

Fleming agreed that his bowlers failed to deliver yesterday: "There were some wicket-taking deliveries but we didn't deny England as they denied us in our second innings." And he recognised it was in their second innings that the prize slipped away from the Kiwis. "We threw it away in one session of cricket and that hurt us - it hurt me."

It hurt me as well.