From time to time – about every five minutes – someone, somewhere insists that Test cricket is dying, perhaps dead. There may be something in this diagnosis but it would be inadvisable to call as evidence the first day of the 2015 international summer in England.
The sun was shining, the greatest sporting arena in the world was full, largely of happy people determined to make it a jolly occasion. In this task, they were considerably helped by what was before them. They witnessed in the first hour New Zealand swing bowling of the highest order, which seemed to have reduced the England innings to tatters.
There followed deliberate counter-attacking with the bat, vibrantly led by Joe Root and Ben Stokes, which matched in style and class the earlier bowling. All in all, it was glorious. By the close of these opening exchanges in the first of the seven Investec Tests this summer, England, from 30 for 4, had reached 354 for 7.
Anybody suggesting at high noon that it would be the home side’s day might have met fervent disagreement. But it was. The loss of Jos Buttler to the last ball of final session, ending a partnership of 103 with Moeen Ali, could not quite tilt the balance the tourists’ way.
The course to disaster was averted by Root and Stokes. Root, England’s player of the year, started this new campaign pretty much as he batted throughout the last one. He scored 98, the 10th time he has passed fifty in 17 innings, and was caught behind essaying the shot which would have brought him his fifth hundred in that time.
Stokes was tremendous, playing with a freedom and joy which belied the mess England were in – restored at last to the No 6 position from which he should never have been removed after his exploits in Australia the winter before last, an action which has made the selectors appear nincompoops. Paul Farbrace, the temporary coach, is already showing his credentials.
Stokes had played three Test innings in this country before this, failing to score in all of them, but as soon as he was off the mark with a single nudged into the covers he was up and away. How he deserved his maiden Test hundred in England, how cruelly it was taken away from him.
During the turmoil which has afflicted the English game in the past 18 months – the defeats, the internecine wrangling, the hapless decision-making – it has frequently been suggested that part of the problem, if only part, has been the functional way in which the team plays. This was the perfect riposte.
It could hardly have gone worse for England – or better for the Kiwis – in the first hour of play. As events unfolded, as wicket followed wicket, it was possible to imagine more resignations, sackings, calls for the return of you know who and probably the exhumation of others.
New Zealand may rue letting it slip, the setting perhaps for too long of attacking fields, the constant search for more wickets when it was clear their opponents were determined to fight fire with fire and one umpiring decision which went against them when on another day it might have gone their way.
The greenish tinge in the pitch, the fact there was a modicum of cloud cover and his possession of a special opening pair persuaded Brendon McCullum, New Zealand’s captain, to bowl. This has now happened in six of the past 10 Tests at Lord’s, and only one match has been lost by the side inserting.
McCullum had to wait until the eighth over for the breakthrough. Alastair Cook and his ninth opening partner, Adam Lyth, had been understandably circumspect. But if much can be told from 17 balls, Lyth looked the part.
It is perhaps too early to suggest that he will follow in the great line of Yorkshire and England opening batsmen – Herbert Sutcliffe, Len Hutton, Geoff Boycott, Michael Vaughan – but you never know. It took Tim Southee and his partner, Trent Boult, a little while to find their range.
In his fourth over, Southee bowled a ball on an inviting line which went on with the Lord’s slope and took the thinnest edge of Lyth’s bat as he pushed forward. No blame should be attached.
Next came Boult, having changed to the Pavilion End early as McCullum sensed something. Gary Ballance likes to stay back in the crease, especially at the start of an innings and Boult bowled a full ball which demanded that he came forward. It moved little but horribly late; the edge went to third slip.
Cook was the most culpable of the early victims, unfurling a hook shot against the debutant, Matt Henry, to which he could only manage a top edge to the wicketkeeper, B J Watling. When Ian Bell was undone by a splendid ball from Henry which veered in on off, held its own and crashed into off stump England were deep in the mire.
Bell’s last five scores have been 11, 1, 0, 0 and 1. It will be scant consolation that this was the sort of ball most recently purveyed by Dale Steyn, the best fast bowler in the world.
New Zealand continued to attack, but, importantly, so did Root and Stokes. At lunch, England were 113 for 3, 83 having already been added by the pair.
Had Root been given out to a perilously close lbw call when he was on 36, with the total on 99, who knows what might have happened? The review failed only on umpire’s call.
Early in the afternoon, Stokes cut loose. He was in his element. In sight of his hundred, having left Root behind, he shouldered arms to a ball from the off-spinner Mark Craig, only to see it go on with the arm and hit off stump. He was furious.
Root, too, went to a miscalculation, caught behind by Tom Latham, substituting for Watling, who was hit on the knee. England did not take their foot off the gas in the final session, although Buttler and Moeen were as watchful as they were crisp. A superb match is in prospect.
Lord’s timeline: How the first day unfolded
10.30am: NZ win toss
Brendon McCullum guesses right and puts England into bat. Debutant Adam Lyth opens with the forever under-fire Alastair Cook.
11.30am: Wicket Eng 17-1: Lyth c Watling b Southee 7
That didn’t go to plan. Yorkshireman Lyth trudges back to the pavilion after brushing Southee through to Watling.
11.43am: Wicket Eng 25-2: Ballance c Southee b Boult 1
Here we go again. England’s batting problems continue as Ballance edges for Southee to scoop up.
11.48am: Wicket Eng 25-3: Cook c Watling b Henry 16
Things go from bad to worse, a horrible shot from captain Cook doing nothing to dispel the doubters. NZ well on top.
11.59am: Wicket Eng 30-4: Bell b Henry 1
Even the usually reliable Ian Bell cannot offer any hope, bowled by debutant Matt Henry to cap an awful hour.
3pm: Wicket Eng 191-5: Stokes b Craig 92
Joe Root and Ben Stokes put on a stand of 161, before the latter misjudges Craig’s delivery eight short of his century.
4.31pm: Wicket Eng 251-6: Root c Latham b Henry 98
The young pretender also falls agonisingly short, edging Henry’s delivery just two runs shy of a century.
6.22pm: Wicket Eng 354-7: Buttler lbw b Boult 67
Another century partnership steadies the ship before Boult traps Buttler with the final ball of an intriguing day.
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