In theory, England's intentions were sweetly plausible. They would reveal a new but essential ruthless streak by gaining a clean sweep of victories against demoralised and beleaguered opposition distracted by a nationwide search for cricketers of international calibre whose bodies have not yet fallen apart. And then came the practical examination in the Third Test.
In theory, England's intentions here were sweetly plausible. They would reveal a new but essential ruthless streak by gaining a clean sweep against demoralised and beleaguered opposition distracted by a nationwide search for cricketers of international calibre whose bodies have not fallen apart. And then came the practical exam.
For the first time in the series the home side failed to acquire a first-innings lead, and although collectively they have bowled better than at any time this summer, they batted with a flamboyance edging perilously towards carelessness. New Zealand might have been in the gutter licking wounds real and metaphorical but they were deter- mined to look at the stars.
None of which means that England will not nail the first series of the summer 3-0, just that their unquestionable progress and understandable pleasure in winning ought to be kept in perspective. That might perhaps be easier to do if they were to lose against an injury-ravaged side who have lost another two seam bowlers during this match.
But a sequence of debatable umpiring decisions yesterday may have tilted the match and the whitewash England's way. Both sides benefited from the errors but by the close England were well in credit. If Simon Taufel's new reputation as the best umpire in the world is not quite in tatters it is no longer a well-pressed piece of pristine material either.
In an article eulogising his craftsmanship yesterday, Taufel spoke amiably about how he went about his work and how he reached decisions using, among other things, the reaction of the batsmen and the confidence of the fielders. By last night the commentator and former New Zealand player Ian Smith was seething at those words; had England managed to fit in a spot of practice on the confidence of their appeals? At the least it was an unfortunate piece of timing for poor Taufel. The more caustic observers were openly using a rhyming word in conjunction with his surname and it wasn't "lawful".
In conceding a deficit of 65 yesterday, England exhibited the ruthlessness of a lap dog. When the tourists increased the lead to 159 with all 10 second-innings wickets in hand the prospect of a whitewash receded. But the all-pals-together spirit fostered under Michael Vaughan is not an illusion and they then took four wickets for 40 runs.
If the pitch is less trustworthy, it remains good. The gap is 255, and England would not fancy chasing many more than 300. But the Black Caps have no spinner and their seam attack is denuded. Anything is possible.
This has been a perpetually fascinating rubber between two well-matched sides, one of whom has seized the opportunities when they mattered. England eventually won both at Lord's and at Headingley by wearing the opposition down and then dashing for home. Their resourcefulness at the right times has enhanced any disarray New Zealand may have been in.
The umpiring decisions which influenced play yesterday were potentially greater in consequence than those that take place in every match and were given more weight by Taufel's public comments. Both sides had their share of feeling elated or disappointed. England lost Graham Thorpe in the morning to a catch at the wicket down the leg side off James Franklin. It did not look out on initial viewing and it did not look out on any subsequent viewing. Whatever Taufel's reputation, this was some aberration.
Thorpe stayed just long enough to show that he disagreed and although he walked briskly enough to the dressing-room, it was fair to assume that his first enunciations on reaching it were not connected with the hardships facing umpires.
Thorpe had been in menacing form, acquisitive, watchful and alert. Two months ago in Barbados he had conveyed precisely this mood, carving out a wonderful century that allowed England to secure the series. There was an air of meaningful calm about him.
After the loss of Geraint Jones it was left to Ashley Giles to salvage what he could for England. How diligent he was as a number nine, making 45 not out and deserving his third Test half-century before he ran out of partners.
Cairns took the final two wickets to complete his 13th five-wicket haul in his last Test. On his 34th birthday today he will be planning one last devastating assault on England.
The lead was more than New Zealand would have settled for given their bowling attack. Mark Richardson and Stephen Fleming set about increasing it. They defended astutely. England might have profited from coming round the wicket from the start.
By the time New Zealand reached 94, England desperately needed a wicket. Richardson went back to Giles and was leg before. He was one short of playing his 800th scoreless ball of a series in which he has faced 971. He has made 369 runs at an average of 61.5 and it has been a remarkable effort. It has also been surprisingly watchable, evidence that batsmen do not have always to be on the attack.
Brendon McCullum was spectacularly if nonchalantly caught by Andrew Flintoff off Giles in the slips. Fleming survived a flurry of lbw appeals when Taufel decided that one which hit him on the thigh and looked to be going over the top was in fact out. The immediate reaction was that it at least compensated England for Thorpe's dismissal.
Flintoff won a leg-before verdict against Nathan Astle to one which was shaping towards leg. The technology showed it would have clipped leg stump, though not whether it would have made sufficient impact to dislodge the bail. Astle has made 25 runs in the last four innings.
New Zealand had begun to pull the match their way again when, with four overs to go before the close, England went up for a catch at the wicket against Scott Styris. Taufel's finger went up one more time. There was not quite enough space between Styris's bat and the ball for the Red Sea to open up.
So the match is evenly poised. England need early wickets today, New Zealand need their late order to score many more yet. It is set up for Cairns, and the Nottingham crowd would not begrudge him a last hurrah. But Steve Harmison, Flintoff and Giles will have plenty to say yet.
It has been a superb and attractive Test series. All that anybody can hope is that the final match will be determined by the players.
Npower Test scoreboard
New Zealand won toss
New Zealand - First Innings 384
(*S P Fleming 117, S B Styris 108, M H Richardson 73)
England - First Innings
G P Thorpe c McCullum b Franklin 45
(Adjudged to have edged attempted leg-glance; 157 min, 110 balls, 7 fours)
M J Hoggard c Styris b Franklin 5
(Edged to second slip pushing at ball slanting across him; 39 min, 37 balls)
ÝG O Jones lbw b Styris 22
(Missed attempted smear to leg-side to ball angled in; 57 min, 42 balls, 4 fours)
A F Giles not out 45
(70 min, 58 balls, 7 fours)
M J Saggers b Cairns 0
(Deceived by slower ball, which bounced off bottom of bat on to stumps; 19 min, 16 balls)
S J Harmison b Cairns 0
(Beaten by swinging yorker; 8 min, 2 balls)
Extras (b2 lb5 nb12) 19
Total (345 min, 85.3 overs) 319
Fall: 6-244 (Hoggard), 7-255 (Thorpe), 8-295 (Jones), 9-301 (Saggers), 10-319 (Harmison).
Bowling: Martin 1.5-0-1-0 (nb1) (one spell), Cairns 23.3-5-79-5 (nb3) (5-2-15-1 6-2-29-1 9-1-26-1 3.3-0-9-2), Franklin 26.1-4-104-4 (nb2) (5.1-0-26-1 8-1-32-1 10-2-32-2 3-1-14-0), Mills 6-2-31-0 (nb2) (5-1-31-0 1-1-0-0), Oram 15-0-47-0 (nb4) (5-0-17-0 4-0-12-0 6-0-18-0), Styris 11-1-45-1 (1-0-8-0 6-0-23-0 4-1-14-1), McMillan 2-1-5-0 (one spell).
Third day: 250: 265 min, 66.2 overs. New ball: 80.2 overs at 297-8. 300: 332 min, 82.4 overs. Innings closed: 12.23pm, early lunch.
New Zealand - Second Innings
M H Richardson lbw b Giles 49
(Caught plumb in front shuffling across stumps; 112 min, 88 balls, 8 fours)
*S P Fleming lbw b Flintoff 45
(Left alone a delivery that nipped back; 163 min, 108 balls, 5 fours)
ÝB B McCullum c Flintoff b Giles 4
(Edged to slip dancing down pitch and hitting against spin; 23 min, 22 balls)
S B Styris c Jones b Harmison 39
(Lashed at short wide ball and was adjudged to have nicked it; 99 min, 80 balls, 6 fours)
N J Astle lbw b Flintoff 0
(Beaten for pace pressing forward; 6 min, 4 balls)
C D McMillan not out 28
(79 min, 57 balls, 2 fours)
J E C Franklin not out 2
(13 min, 9 balls)
Extras (lb21, nb2) 23
Total (for 5, 250 min, 61 overs) 190
Fall: 1-94 (Richardson), 2-106 (McCullum), 3-126 (Fleming), 4-134 (Astle), 5-185 (Styris).
To bat: J D P Oram, C L Cairns, K D Mills, C S Martin.
Bowling: Hoggard 6-2-25-0 (1nb) (5-2-19-0 1-0-6-0); Harmison 17-2-44-1 (4-0-10-0 2-0-11-0 5-1-9-0 6-1-14-1); Saggers 6-2-14-0 (one spell); Flintoff 16-2-48-2 (1nb) (5-0-18-0 9-2-27-2 2-0-3-0); Giles 16-3-38-2 (one spell).
Third day: 50: 50 min, 11.5 overs. Tea: 99-1 (Fleming 35, McCullum 3) 30 overs. 100: 127 min, 30.1 overs. 150: 195 mins, 47.2 overs.
Umpires: D J Harper (Aus) and S J A Taufel (Aus).
TV replay umpire: M R Benson. Match referee: C H Lloyd.