New Zealand v England: Poor show all round as England's bowlers battle on bland pitch

 

the Basin Reserve, Wellington

Test cricket is in an unequal struggle for survival. Other elements of the modern world continue to intrude on its well-being, not least other forms cricket.

In many parts of the world, except where England play, spectators are staying away in droves. The Test match being played in Chandigarh at present between India and Australia is being watched by two men and a dog and sometimes even the dog has not bothered to turn out.

Given this, the sort of pitches on which New Zealand and England have been engaged in battle so far in this series might seem like part of a suicide note.

David Saker, England's bowling coach, delivered a gentle reminder on the subject after a curtailed fourth day in the second Test. There was just about enough play to determine that the surface had not worn, that bowling was still a titanic struggle and that batting was easy until it came to the playing of strokes.

New Zealand fought back tenaciously. In the 35 overs that were possible, England took only one more second-innings wicket, when Peter Fulton edged Jimmy Anderson to slip. But that was that as Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, both superior craftsmen, ensured they made no mistakes and reduced the deficit to 49.

"It probably makes it more even," said Saker. "But for the spectacle of Test cricket it's not the greatest way. You want to see the ball bounce through and batsmen play off the back foot more and sometimes it's a bit frustrating for the spectators. But Test cricket is played on all surfaces and that's just one of the things you have to come up against."

It is entirely understandable from one point of view that the curators have supplied bland surfaces in the two Tests so far. If they were not acting under instruction from higher authority they have applied their own nous. Faster surfaces would have benefited England's slightly higher class bowling attack.

But it has not been beneficial for the wider appeal of the game. The Basin Reserve was all but full on the first four days and the pitch conspired against entertaining cricket.

"It's not a great spectacle for Test cricket when you're playing on lowish, slowish wickets," said Saker. "It makes it really hard both for batsmen to score and bowlers to prise the wickets out. Sometimes it's a good challenge for the bowlers, but you start feeling your aches and pains more on slower wickets, there's no doubt about that."

Whether this is enough to guarantee the survival of the longer form of the game over the next decade or so must be open to doubt. It still throws up enough thrilling occasions to leave its allure in no doubt, but England, after starting slowly in Dunedin, have had to work much harder in this series than they probably anticipated.

"You have just got to find a way to find wickets," said Saker. "A lot of these pitches you have to mainly prepare for batsman error. You have to be really patient and hope you can build up enough pressure so the batsman makes a mistake.

"Unfortunately, that doesn't really go much to the bowlers' skills. But we've played on a lot of Test wickets like this and got sides out on wickets like this."

In an attack of three fast bowlers it makes it essential that all three are on top of their game. In this match, this has not happened for England, with both Anderson and Steven Finn lacking rhythm.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was Stuart Broad who was the most incisive bowler in New Zealand's first innings, taking 6 for 51 in his most complete spell of bowling for at least a year. His pace and line were back after several months of injury which probably provoked his loss of form.

It was ironic therefore that Anderson should be slightly off his peak, while Finn continued to adjust to his new shorter run. "Jimmy's probably one or two spells from changing a game," said Saker.

"Test cricket is a hard game which takes it out on fast bowlers. He knows how it is. Steve's a young player trying to find his way in test cricket. We have to be patient with him and we're going to be patient.

"He probably needs a bit more bounce but he has to learn as well to get the batsmen coming forward to try to get them out that way."

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