New Zealand v England, third Test: Matt Prior form cannot mask England's mystifying lapses

Timid deficiencies in New Zealand show how far the side has slipped since beating India with such panache and courage
  • @stephenbrenkley

Sometimes, as England’s plight grew more desperate in the third Test, the mind went back to late last year. All was right with their world then. They had defeated India away from home with a display of panache and courage after falling behind.

Now here they were on a rugby ground at the other end of the world performing with a stunning ineptitude and timidity. New Zealand were supposed to be a cakewalk – and therein, unfortunately, may have resided the trouble – but instead they have made much of the running in the series and in its decisive match.

The contrast has been both startling and worrying. If England were still in the match by the end of the third day, it was probably because of New Zealand’s mistake – their biggest one of the past fortnight – in declining to enforce the follow-on. It could not disguise the tourists’ deficiencies of approach and style. They trailed by 239 runs on first innings, after having asked their opponents to bat, lest it be forgotten, which had risen to 274 by the close.

New Zealand were as superb for the first two sessions of the third day as England, the second ranked side in the world, were clumsy and apprehensive. The Kiwi bowlers found appreciable swing, which they used wisely. The plumbline has not been devised which was straighter than the bowling purveyed by England’s trio of quicks.

The lack of application was not as dire as on the opening day’s play in the series but England still found themselves in the mire. Two down overnight, they lost another three in the morning and although there was then a period of resistance led, almost inevitably, by Matt Prior, the last four wickets went down for four runs.

New Zealand’s decision not to impose the follow-on seemed strange in the circumstances. If it did not open the door to England victory, it left it slightly ajar and it was a wicket-taking day, for which England immediately offered further compelling evidence. They reduced the home side to 8 for 3, which meant seven wickets had fallen in all for 12 runs.

Throughout this trip, England have regularly insisted that they were not taking New Zealand lightly. The opening day, when they were bowled out for 167 amid a litany of crass shot-making, suggested otherwise and the manner in which they have played this match, a cup final in everything but name, has been befuddling. It was clearly a mistake to ask New Zealand to bat – though everyone who saw the pitch on the first morning would have chosen that option – but that does not explain the course of the match. England have never won a Test with such a first innings deficit having chosen to field – that was the measure of their task after their first innings.

Perhaps it has been a subliminal kind of weakness in these three matches. Perhaps they are saving something for the two Ashes series later this year without knowing it. But truly accomplished sides – the Australia of the 1990s – put their foot on their opponents’ throat and never let it off.

And if it has not been caused by an inadvertent failure to treat the opposition with appropriate caution, it is more worrying. The time on the road, the weeks in India, the weeks in this country, for all its innate pleasantness, may have taken their toll.

It was gruelling and mystifying to watch England bat on the third day. The ball was suddenly swinging and the tourists were unable to cope. Two wickets down overnight, they lost another three by lunch, all leg before, two after reviews by New Zealand.

Poor Jonny Bairstow hardly had a chance. In the side only after  Kevin Pietersen’s knee protested too much and forced him home, he was horribly short of match practice and almost certainly the trust in what are these days called the processes that brings. His pain was made worse by the fact that he was given not out initially. The replays showed that Trent Boult’s inswinger was hitting the stumps. At that moment Bairstow may not have been alone in wondering if Pietersen and his bruised knee could have beaten the pain barrier one last time in England’s hour of need.

Prior was blissful as usual. His stock as a cricketer rises almost every time he goes out to play for England. He had taken five catches in New Zealand’s first innings, two of them beauties, and he scored his seventh half-century in his last 15 innings.

He adapted his usual bustling approach to the needs of the occasion, though he never allowed himself to be becalmed. Joe Root kept him extremely sedate company during a partnership of 101. Root scored 73 from 229 balls in his maiden Test innings in Nagpur and here he made 45 from 176. It a was a testament to his belief.

There is something wrong with England now. “It’s not as if people are going out there and thinking they are a walking wicket,” said the estimable Prior, “but we have played two bad days of cricket. It’s something we’re aware of and will address.”

The moment cannot come too soon. Nagpur and Auckland have almost nothing in common and yesterday they seemed a world apart for England.