Truly, madly, deeply this is a new England. From the jaws of defeat – New Zealand must already have digested the initial, sweet taste of victory – a reborn team seized a superb, improbable win.
Not only did it mean that they took the series 3-2 but that they can hold their heads high again in respectable society. It looked all over for England when they fell to 45 for five in pursuit of a reduced but nonetheless formidable target of 192.
But a sixth-wicket partnership of 80 from 57 balls between the stand-in wicketkeeper, Jonny Bairstow and one of the new kids on the block, Sam Billings, remarkable even by the standards of this extraordinary series, pulled them back into this decisive tie. Although Billings perished with 67 still needed, Bairstow, another of a seemingly unending legion of Yorkshire lionhearts, kept going. They dashed breathlessly home with all of six balls to spare.
Bairstow, called into the team only on Friday when Jos Buttler was injured in training, finished on 83 not out from 63 balls with 11 fours. His achievement was quite stunning in all respects. It embodied the belief and conviction of a side which has not so much turned a corner as seen the light.
England, it seemed, might have pushed a target of 284, something within them seemed to suggest that the amended pursuit was too much. Brendon McCullum, the inestimable New Zealand captain, appeared to have played his last tactical masterstroke of the summer. While McCullum does not get everything right, he is willing to experiment boldly and now with England preparing to plunder he opened the bowling with the inexperienced spinner, Mitchell Santner.
In his first seven balls, finding immediate turn, Santner took three wickets. England were confused, aware they had to push along quickly and that Santner was a potential weak link.
The contest was not over but since the three departures in question were Alex Hales, Joe Root and Eoin Morgan, the difficulties were obvious. Hales has helped to give England rapid starts in the series, Root and Morgan have built on them greedily.
Each contributed to their own downfall, forgivable in the demanding circumstances. Hales pulled a long hop to square leg where Kane Williamson, man of the series took a smart catch above his head. Root was stumped, advancing to and missing a turning ball, Morgan pulled too lightly to mid-wicket, using an eight iron when a six was needed.
Soon Ben Stokes and Jason Roy followed. Bairtstow and Billings did not. They ran hard and Billings especially improvised. New Zealand were beginning to rue the playing of an improbable debutant Andrew Mathieson, called from club cricket in Devon. It was poor Mathieson, with no name on his shirt, who had to bowl the penultimate over. It yielded the 17 runs England needed.
They restricted their opponents to 283 for 9, the lowest first-innings total of the five matches, when heavy rain fell during the interval. A last over in which 22 were conceded made it more difficult.
There was a long delay and by the time the grim clouds gave way to something more befitting the occasion and the day, England were left needing 192 to take match and series in 26 overs. This was a rate of 7.38 runs an over compared to the 5.68 that New Zealand had scored at. The pitch was of a different hue from those earlier in the series, a factor created as much by the cloud cover as the nature of the surface. Such murkiness, while it no doubt had a direct affect on matters, seemed itself to provoke distrust and instil greater caution.
England made an entirely logical decision when they decided to field first on winning the toss. It was vindicated early when McCullum, having heaved a mighty six off the fifth ball of the match, was bowled by the sixth, dragging on a back-foot forcing shot.
McCullum waits for no man, cloud cover or bright sunshine. It is his zealousness in pursuit of attacking cricket which has been the hallmark of this series and indeed his team’s whole tour. Although he has had a disappointing time of it by his own illustrious standards he has never taken a backward step and nor has his team. McCullum has been stupendous. Now, however, was the occasion for a little circumspection.
Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson played a studious hand for the second wicket, intelligent players recognising that the fall of a couple more wickets early in the piece on such a day might lead to calamity. They consolidated by playing shots aimed at piercing the field rather than going over the top. As ever, they ran smartly between the wickets.
It was a surprise when Williamson, looking like a million dollars as usual, played a cross-batted stroke to Ben Stokes, which took an edge and bowled him. That was perhaps a sign that the ball was holding up.
Guptill and Ross Taylor now took over, still both more vigilant than bold. Guptill, having played neatly, was furious with himself when he edged one from Stokes that bounced more than he would have liked. By now, the Kiwis had worked out that a total in excess of 300 was improbable.
There were promising points about all their bowlers, not least Adil Rashid, whose mixture of leg-spin and googlies was craftily executed. He bowled Santner, promoted to number five, with a perfectly poised leg break which turned through the left hander’s bat and pad and induced Grant Elliott down the wicket for Bairstow to complete a formal stumping with rapidity. He was not finished yet.Reuse content