Black Caps show hosts how to play with vigour

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The Independent Online

The Union flag crackled and billowed over the Victorian pavilion, as though above some proud imperial vessel of the same century, but for the first half of this match no legacy of adventure seemed to survive in those whose ancestors once claimed distant islands for their own.

True, if England's batsmen seemed to lose their bearings in the maelstrom yesterday morning, New Zealand were soon scattered themselves. But this mutual chaos should not disqualify the tourists, on the overall evidence of the series to date, as more deserving heirs to the pioneering spirit.

In getting England back into the game, of course, Monty Panesar hardly discouraged the impression that vipers are now crawling out of the wicket. As such, New Zealand are still entitled to win – and that would be no less than the Kiwis deserve for the audacity, courage and enterprise of their cricket so far this summer.

In fact, the reputations of both teams have been pretty well transposed. It was said that the New Zealanders might have a degree of character, but that they lacked characters. As things turned out, of course, they have both. In their hosts, meanwhile, it had become harder and harder to discern either. Until Panesar finally came to life yesterday, it had fallen to Ryan Sidebottom – more or less single-handedly – to relieve the sterility that seemed to be corroding the team in general, and the middle order in particular.

To that extent, both sides had been strangely misrepresented, right down to their wardrobes. New Zealand, forbiddingly, were the Black Caps; England had meanwhile taken the field in a new, preternatural white. Maybe they fancy themselves to resemble Alan Ladd in Shane: shimmering, messianic figures. But while the gale whipped dust across the wicket, as though this were indeed some baked frontier arcade, until yesterday afternoon almost all the gunslingers had been playing for the other side.

Having been beaten on their own soil during the winter, New Zealand were perceived as too callow to turn things round here. Their best batsman had retired; their best bowler, for no intelligible reason, remains banished. Michael Vaughan himself assessed them as "workmanlike", faint praise indeed.

Doubtless the England captain has since been made to consider other adjectives to describe the batting of Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Jacob Oram. What would he have given, moreover, during the first innings of this game, for bowling that even warranted the description "workmanlike"? Iain O'Brien, a 31-year-old fringe player, may not be able to bowl like the wind. But he was game enough to bowl into it yesterday morning – and remove both England openers, and then Ian Bell, with a snick from Kevin Pietersen meanwhile smothered in the gale.

And who, pray, is the meeker of the wicketkeepers? England's collapse was hastened by two catches from McCullum that would have excited the professional envy of a kingfisher. When Sidebottom bowled the first ball of the next innings, the diving Tim Ambrose lobbed it, à la McCullum, blindly in the direction of his slips – one of whom eventually noticed the ball bouncing behind him. Despite their relative billing, few could still mistake which of these teams has the more innate flair.

Flair on its own is all very well in Twenty20, of course – that crude, coppiced version of the game, which exculpates the reckless and will never achieve the sort of classic crescendo that beckons today. In this more exacting environment, the Kiwis harness it to the sort of resilience familiar in the sons of settled lands. When McCullum nearly had his elbow cracked at Lord's, his reaction made John Wayne look like Julian Clary.

Daniel Flynn, of course, was so dazed when leaving his teeth in the apple on the first day that New Zealand have effectively made do with nine batsmen, or 10 if you count Chris Martin. Perhaps their key player, moreover, was unable to contribute yesterday, Oram having been injured in the warm-up. He had bowled beautifully the previous evening, and while he managed a brief appearance with the bat, he was palpably inhibited.

England might well have recognised something of themselves in his deportment. In the end, with his frenetic approach, Panesar almost seemed to over-compensate for their introversion. The question now is whether his offer of a reprieve will embolden the batsmen to break their bonds. Maybe England have been shamed into making a game of this. If so, it may not have been simply by their own torpor and timidity in the first seven sessions of this match. Perhaps a still greater spur was the example of younger, bolder opponents during the first seven days of the Test summer.

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