This series is suddenly much more than a minor distraction on the way to the Ashes. A complacent opening by England, some New Zealand resolve that was not entirely expected and the end of the drought have seen to that.
So it is that the teams will arrive in Auckland level at 0-0 with the outcome of the tour in the balance. It is still possible to be overwhelmingly supportive of England’s chances when the Third Test starts at Eden Park on Friday but anyone’s blasé approach to the eventual result has long since been devoured as if swallowed up by the Rotorua geysers.
England claim that they never at any stage took the opposition lightly, always aware they would be in a tough contest but the manner in which they came out slugging on the first morning at Dunedin rather suggested otherwise. It was the boxer who forgets all about defence and walks into his opponent’s right hand, the tennis player who attempts a winning volley off every stroke.
It took England only a day to wake up to the stark fact and they arrived in Wellington honed and wary. They had much the better of the match which was ruined by the loss of much of the fourth and all the fifth day, although New Zealand had already demonstrated that they were not about to fold easily being 162 for 2 in their second innings.
What is certain is that England came here brimful of confidence after their stirring deeds in India at the end of last year when they came from 1-0 down in the most alien conditions of all to win the series 2-1. By contrast, the Kiwis had been given salutary lesson in the craft of Test cricket by South Africa, the world’s top ranked team, losing both Tests by an innings.
On the evidence of the two matches as a whole so far, England have played a little worse than expected, New Zealand have been much better. While it was plain that England were the superior team at Basin Reserve a draw it was and they now have to be careful at Eden Park.
Doubtless it would be tempting to go all out for a crushing victory from the first ball to show why they were such large favourites when it all began. Their captain, Alastair Cook, wisely counselled against that.
“In five days, you don't need to chase the game if you get good weather,” he said. “That's good enough to get the result, so that's the worst thing you can do going into the game. If you start chasing it from ball one, you leave yourself very exposed and come unstuck. You've got to earn the right, and get yourself in position to win the game.”
It is possible that Cook could have been pro-active after imposing the follow on in Dunedin. He conceded that he only did so because of the dire weather forecast, which duly turned out to be correct and ended New Zealand’s long drought. The saving of the Test was apparently very much a secondary reason for delight.
These days it is unfashionable for sides to ask opponents to bat again partly because of tiring out bowlers now rest days are a thing of the past, partly out of fear of having to bat last, which can bring their only chance of defeat.
Having been influenced by the weather once and reckoning he had a possible 80 overs Cook could in that case have decided on a policy of all out attack, a ring of slips, a man under the batsman’s nose throughout. Instead he was much more cautious which might have made New Zealand feel a little more secure. They were, however, admirably tenacious.
Both Cook and his counterpart, Brendon McCullum were careful to place no blame on the pitches which have been criticised in some quarters for being much too benign. With five days’ cricket, the captains said, there would have been positive results in both matches.
As Cook emphasised there were some good things to come out of the second Test for his team, most obviously the second consecutive hundred for Nick Compton and the return to form of Stuart Broad who took 6 for 51 in New Zealand’s first innings.
If the drop-in pitch in Auckland offers a little more pace and bounce than the real things at Dunedin and Wellington, then England would be pleased. It would probably help to continue Broad’s startling recovery as he once again unfurled some long forgotten, potent wicket-taking balls.
“He's always had that ability to do that,” said Cook. “In the Ashes 2009 he did it there. It was great to see him delivering again like that. He's certainly back to his best, and he ran in as well as I've seen him for a while. I think he's fully confident now with his heel, and it's great to have a senior bowler back.”
By putting it like that Cook gave a little hint that he, like others, was concerned about Broad’s form. Its return and a ten-day forecast in Auckland which suggests fair weather make 0-0 in the series a more distant prospect, though still much nearer than anybody supposed a fortnight ago.
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