It is universally acknowledged – or at least the team keep insisting on it – that England's top six batsmen are all indisputably world-class players. This is as well, because as everybody also knows, class is permanent and form is temporary.
What the coaching staff, the selection panel or perhaps even the managing director of England cricketneed to work out, and with rather more alacrity than they have been willing to demonstrate so far, is when the permanent and the temporary merge, so that they are indistinguishable to all but the most rarefied eye.
The untrained, naked eye keeps seeing the top six getting in for a bit and then getting out, generally not behaving as well-established batsmen should. None of them has made a first-innings hundred for eight Test matches, and on the evidence of yesterday there is a distinct reluctance to make them in the second innings as well.
Since England finished the third day of the Second Test 421 runs ahead, extending that advantage to 437 this morning, and in control of their own destiny in the match, it may seem that there is slight cause for concern. But the scorecard told a depressingly familiar tale: all the sextet more or less settling, all then being dismissed, all doing enough to keep their career averages above 40, which is still stubbornly viewed as some kind of benchmark when it should be a launching pad. It was a reprise of the first innings in Wellington and of many innings before that.
It is not much of an overestimation to suggest that the tourists on Thursday were one ball from seeing the series disappear. Had Tim Ambrose, on his debut, or Paul Collingwood been out shortly after England had plummeted to 136 for 5, first-innings recovery would have been improbable. England lost theirfirst five wickets for 136 and their last five for 42 – which sandwiched a stand of 164.
Ambrose's innings was encouraging because of its counterattacking nature under duress. It was also the first century abroad by an England wicketkeeper for 11 years. The last to achieve the feat was Alec Stewart, who made two in the winter of 1996-97.
Before him, however, it was Jack Richards another 10 years earlier, and before that it was Alan Knott 12 years back from that – but that was in those halcyon days when the ability to keep wicket had more than a superficial influence on selection. The point is that Ambrose would be advised not to wait another 11 years before he does it again.
The time is approaching, if it has not passed, when the batsmen must perform as a proper partnership-building unit again. There were half-centuries yesterday for Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood, though both were put down off emi-nently catchable chances early in their innings.
There were 40s for Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell. Of the other two, Michael Vaughan received a top-notch ball and Kevin Pietersen was run out backing up, but neither dismissal could quite allay the suspicion that they might have found some other way of getting out.
Cook has gone four innings without a hundred, Vaughan 12, Strauss 30, Pietersen 10, Bell 21 and Collingwood 17. Individually they are not cause for alarm, collectively they betray fallibility. It leads to a paucity of partnerships: the 164 between Collingwood and Ambrose was the highest since Bell and Mat-thew Prior put on 190 against a ramshackle West Indies at Lord's last summer.
The last time England had a partnership above 200 was when Collingwood and Pietersen put on 310 at Adelaide last winter, but look where that led. There may be slight mitigating circumstances in that the pitches have not been custom-built for fluent batting, but England have been hesitant to take the attack to the opposition, when a hallmark of Vaughan's captaincy has always been that his teams should express themselves.
It might not have been an entire coincidence that Ambrose, in his second match, has been the only player prepared to play sequences of attacking shots.
New Zealand again bowled with discipline – not least Jacob Oram – but had full co-operation from the batsmen. Maybe winning ugly would be a start towards winning lovely again. What they needed above all was victory.
Cook and Strauss shared a vigilant 126 after Vaughanedged Kyle Mills' late outswinger. Cook hit the first six of his international career, a top edge over the keeper, but otherwise he did what Cook does, which also applied to his dismissal, pushing at a ball he nicked to slip.
It was painful to watch Strauss at times. He was playing for his place again as much as the team but he never allowed the demands of the first to outweigh the second. If he was unlucky to be given out leg before, the ball pitching outside leg stump, he walked across his stumps invitingly.
Pietersen was run out at the bowler's end when Bell's straight drive rebounded off Chris Martin's hands. Bell, culpably, poked a wide ball to point. Collingwood made his second 50 of the match with a little more adventure (towards the end) than his first.
England finished the day in profit. This was reduced somewhat when, in a warm-down game of foot-ball at the close, Jimmy Anderson turned an ankle and left the ground on crutches. However, he was able to resume his innings this morning and had reached 12 when Monty Pensar left him stranded.
England – First innings 342 (Ambrose 102; Gillespie 4-79)
New Zealand – First innings 198 (Anderson 5-73)
England – Second innings (overnight 4-0)
A N Cook c Fleming b Mills 60
(177 mins, 137 balls, 7 fours, 1 six)
*M P Vaughan c McCullum b Mills 13
(43 mins, 38 balls, 2 fours)
A J Strauss lbw b Oram 44
(137 mins, 88 balls, 3 fours)
K P Pietersen run out (Martin) 17
(56 mins, 38 balls, 2 fours)
I R Bell c Sinclair b Oram 41
(132 mins, 83 balls, 4 fours)
P D Collingwood lbw b Gillespie 59
(165 mins, 116 balls, 10 fours)
+T R Ambrose b Oram 5
(24 mins, 16 balls, 1 four)
S C J Broad c McCullum b Martin 16
(36 mins, 39 balls, 1 four)
R J Sidebottom c How b Gillespie 0
(4 mins, 4 balls)
M S Panesar not out 6
(18 mins, 11 balls)
Extras (b6, lb5, nb5) 16
Total (9 wkts, 400 mins, 94.1 overs) 277
Fall: 1-21 (Vaughan), 2-127 (Cook), 3-129 (Strauss), 4-160 (Pietersen), 5-219 (Bell), 6-231 (Ambrose), 7-259 (Broad), 8-260 (Sidebottom), 9-277 (Collingwood).
To bat: J M Anderson.
Bowling: Martin 23-4-72-1 (nb1), Mills23-5-57-2 (nb1), Oram 20-9-44-3, Gillespie 13.1-1-52-2 (nb1), Vettori 15-2-39-0 (nb2).
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus), R E Koertzen (SA)
TV replay umpire: E A Watkin (NZ)