For England the escape from Auckland was a relief but not a triumph. They had come to New Zealand licking their lips at the prospect of embellishing their famous win in India with something much more straightforward in the land of the long white cloud.
Never did it remotely come to pass. For much of the three weeks that the series took – it was like Test cricket being played on a loop tape with little time to breathe and none to reflect – the tourists spent the time under a dark bunch of cumulus created by the Black Caps.
They emerged with 0-0 draw at the last thanks mainly, if not entirely to a businesslike, occasionally fortuitous innings of 110no from Matt Prior. There was no official player of the series award for once but had there been Prior would have been England’s choice by a country mile.
It could easily be judged that England did not deserve to finish with a tied rubber. Outplayed for most of the opening Test, they were hardly given a sniff in the deciding game. But all sport is about applying the finishing blow, or in this case, taking the last wicket.
Prior ensured that did not happen. There was a certain misplaced whimsicality about the innings which lasted four and a half hours and afforded him his seventh Test hundred. He needed the help of the decision review system after he had been given out lbw, he hit in the air three times marginally out of reach of fielders.
Most bizarrely, when he was on 28 he fended off a bouncer which scraped down the stumps but did not dislodge a bail. After that moment of divine intervention it had to be his day. England had to play out the last 19 balls of the match with one wicket in hand and Monty Panesar at the crease. Ian Bell, who scored 73, Stuart Broad with a 77 ball six had done sterling work before but it was Prior alone who saw it through.
It was the fourth time in four years that England had achieved a draw with nine wickets down in their second innings following the match at Cardiff against Australia in 2009 and against South Africa twice in a series in Centurion and Cape Town.
“Amazing,” said England’s captain, Alastair Cook. “We said that in the dressing room, trying to count which one, who was playing and what we were doing at a certain time. Hopefully, we won’t have to do that again but this England side seems to take those Test matches down to the wire. The tension in all of them has been unbearable.”
Cook revealed that he did not watch the last 18 balls of the match, leaving his lucky seat when Stuart Broad was out. A running commentary was relayed to him by Jonathan Trott and the team’s fitness coach, Huw Bevan as he skulked in the dressing room.
Beyond the jubilation and relief of the result, Cook will eventually have to ponder where it went wrong for England. They were jaded for too much of this series and if they were not taking the Kiwis lightly, they played with neither the class nor the passion of a side which intended to win.
Cook said: “We are disappointed that we have not played well enough to win the test series. That is the bottom line. We have to find the reasons why and get back on the horse and get our standards higher. We haven't played as well as we need to beat anyone.
“We have to give a lot of credit to New Zealand. They put us under a lot of pressure. I think it’s a bit of a combination. They have played well and we haven’t played as well as we can do. They have put us under pressure at certain times, we have just about managed to respond and hold on.”
Part, probably a significant part, of the trouble is connected with the Ashes. There are two series against Australia coming up later this year and given what they mean to English followers and the obsession around them that has developed in the last 20 years a couple of short series against little ol’ New Zealand are too easily overlooked.
It is certain that England did not do so deliberately but the gap in their performance here and in India was too great for that not to be a factor. If it was not, they have problems which may not be readily surmountable.
At various times in New Zealand, the tourists bowled badly and batted badly. They were simply not good enough and perhaps most worryingly of all when it came to the decisive match with the series level they were patently off the pace. Cook was not quite ready yet to embrace the nature of it entirely.
“It wasn't too long ago in India that we found ourselves putting on 500, 600 in our first innings,” he said. “We knew how important it was there so we delivered there. Yeah it has been a little bit of a trend in this series but it has finished and we can get away from cricket for a couple of weeks. It has been a long winter and we have spent a lot of time together. We can now get away, get refreshed and get ready back for New Zealand on May 16.”
On balance, Cook thought the side had a good winter, winning and drawing Test series, winning and narrowly losing the one-day series and winning and drawing the Twenty20s. But in the one rubber they were supposed to win easily – bookmakers, pundits and spectators were all in agreement – they were found wanting.
“We haven’t been beaten, and I think that's important thing to have for a side,” said Cook. “To have that toughness when you are behind the eight ball to fight and make yourself a very difficult team to beat.”
New Zealand were understandably deeply disappointed not to finish the job. Brendon McCullum, who hobbled throughout the final day with a hamstring strain but was going nowhere, said: “It is heartbreaking, obviously. We played some brilliant cricket throughout the series but especially in this Test match and dictated terms from day one and we gave it every chance to force the result.
“We came up against a defiant English team who were hell-bent on ensuring they didn’t lose the test match for their country and unfortunately we weren’t able to penetrate to get that one more wicket.”
The record shows that the series finished level. Nobody should doubt that New Zealand were the superior team.
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