It would be pushing it a bit to hail Matthew Hoggard as the man who saved Test cricket. Maybe it was not in imminent peril. But for almost four days at Hamilton it was floundering.
A torpid pitch matched by a performance of similar hue from England had conspired to numb the senses. If there were absorbing moments, they were not sufficient to help propound the theory that this form of the game is still the most satisfying, perhaps indeed the most rewarding to play and watch, of all sports. Not with Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League breathing down its neck, ready to plunge a knife in its back.
Then, in the 28th over of New Zealand's second innings of a match that the home side were still dominating if not quite controlling, Hoggard sprinted round the midwicket boundary. He leapt high to his left and held a magnificent catch from Jamie How's forcing shot off his legs.
That was the catalyst for all that followed in the next few overs. England were revitalised and New Zealand, chasing victory, were suddenly up against it, not staring down the barrel but no longer sitting pretty on a featherbed pitch. They lost six wickets for 20 runs in 64 balls, four of them in nine balls. They finished on 147 for 8, 269 ahead, favourites, but no longer the only possible winners.
Whatever happened thereafter, this was the evidence – as if it should be needed after 130 years – of what Test cricket is all about and how it can turn. England hardly deserved it, but over five days, 15 sessions, 450 overs, so much can happen. New Zealand were ahead, but they were never quite far enough ahead to be sure.
It was riveting stuff. Ryan Sidebottom, the deserving beneficiary of Hoggard's catch, shortlyafter became the 11th Englishman to take a hat-trick in a Test. With the last ball of his ninth over, he had the increasingly threatening Stephen Fleming well held low at gully by Alastair Cook. With the first of his 10th, Cook held on to his second snorter of the match off Matthew Sinclair's thick-edged drive. With the next ball, Jacob Oram was undone by swing.
In the over between, Andrew Strauss had taken another stunning running catch, judging perfectly a swirler from Brendon McCullum. It is some time since it could be said of an England side that their bowling and batting were moderate but their catching was world-class.
That Cook led the way with five catches in the match, all of merit, spoke volumes for the virtues of hard work and attention to detail and must give hope that those attributes will soon come to the rescue of the side's other disciplines.
Sidebottom deserved this. Since his surprising recall he has had catch after catch put down, and now here theywere taking screamers. He had already been on a hat-trick in the match, having taken two wickets with the last two balls of New Zealand's first innings.
When his first ball of the second innings slipped towards leg, that improbable opportunity disappeared. But Side-bottom still managed three wickets in five balls by having Matthew Bell caught behind to his third ball, which nipped across the batsman and swung.
The proceedings yesterday may yet be a turning point for this England side but they should not disguise a multitude of shortcomings. For most of the match they have played defective cricket, accentuated by New Zealand's conviction.
Perhaps the most culpable element was the revelation that neither Stephen Harmison nor Hoggard were ready for the match. They had simply not had enough bowling, and it cast a shadow over England's entire preparatory methods. The batting was hapless too – for the seventh successive match there was no first-innings hundred, the worst run for 11 years – but not so bad that Harmison could escape ignominy. He gave a touching interview to Nasser Hussain on Sky Television in which he spoke of the conflict between his love of family and his love of playing for England. He had postponed his arrival on this tour to attend the birth of his fourth child and was thus not ready.
Harmison said: "The preparation for this match could have been better, I could have bowled more, but with the time frame there was no way I was leaving my wife. I love my family, I want to spend a lot of time with them, and I want to play for England."
It was moving and you felt for him, but he bowled only four overs yesterday. Harmison may soon be able to spend as much time with his family as he likes.
D-Day for 'rebel' players
The world players' union will today decide whether to resist England's plans to ban players who take part in the unofficial Indian Cricket League. Several county players intend to take part in the ICL, lasting about four weeks, next month. But after taking legal advice, the England and Wales Cricket Board have amended their regulations to stipulate that from now on those players will not be eligible for registration by counties. Anybody already registered will be disqualified if they play in an unauthorised event. At least five county cricketers, either Kolpak or overseas signings who have been offered six-figure sums by the ICL, are affected. Cricket boards have joined forces against the ICL, which they deem a rebel competition. Tim May, chief executive of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, was talking to England players' officials last night.
New Zealand won toss
New Zealand – First Innings 470 (L R P L Taylor120, J M How 92, D L Vettori 88, B B McCullum 51; R J Sidebottom 4-90)
England – First Innings
(Overnight 286-6; M P Vaughan 63)
P D Collingwood lbw b Oram
(240 min, 182 balls, 9 fours, 1 six) 66
†T R Ambrose c Fleming b Patel
(195 min, 164 balls, 5 fours) 55
R J Sidebottom not out (51 min, 43 balls) 3
S J Harmison c Fleming b Patel (1 min, 1 ball) 0
M S Panesar lbw b Mills (21 min, 16 balls) 0
Extras (b4, lb1, nb6) 11
Total (666 min, 173.1 overs) 348
Fall (cont): 7-335 (Collingwood), 8-347 (Ambrose), 9-347 (Harmison), 10-348 (Panesar).
Bowling: Martin 32-15-60-2, Mills 21.1-6-61-2, Patel 43-14-107-3, Oram 21-9-27-1, Vettori 56-17-88-2.
New Zealand – Second Innings
J M How c Hoggard b Sidebottom
(121 min, 85 balls, 6 fours) 39
M D Bell c Ambrose b Sidebottom
(2 min, 2 balls) 0
S P Fleming c Cook b Sidebottom
(130 min, 88 balls, 7 fours, 1 six) 66
M S Sinclair c Cook b Sidebottom
(21 min, 9 balls) 2
†B B McCullum c Strauss b Panesar
(3 min, 2 balls) 0
L R P L Taylor c and b Panesar
(39 min, 32 balls, 1 four) 6
J D P Oram b Sidebottom (1 min, 1 ball) 0
*D L Vettori not out (67 min, 46 balls, 2 fours) 13
K D Mills lbw b Panesar (22 min, 14 balls, 1 four) 11
J S Patel not out (12 min, 9 balls, 1 four). 6
Extras (lb4) 4
Total (8 wkts; 213 min, 48 overs) 147
Fall: 1-1 (Bell), 2-99 (How), 3-109 (Fleming), 4-110 (McCullum), 5-115 (Sinclair), 6-115 (Oram), 7-119 (Taylor), 8-141 (Mills).
To bat: C S Martin.
Bowling: Sidebottom 14-4-37-5, Hoggard 12-3-29-0, Collingwood 6-1-20-0, Harmison 4-0-24-0, Panesar 12-2-33-3.
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) and D J Harper (Aus).Reuse content