Say what you will about drop-in pitches, reverse swing, conventional swing, fancy fielding positions and aggressive tactics. If the men doing the job are not up to it then none of it matters.
For three hours on the fourth day of the third Test, England were subjected to humiliation. It shaped everything that followed and eventually it brought them lower than they can have ever expected to be on this tour.
The stark figures showed that they finished 390 runs behind New Zealand with six wickets in hand. The difference in the sides was shown by a little piece of field setting at different ends of the fourth day: England posted nine men on the boundary edge, New Zealand had nine round the toe end of the bat.
England entered the arena with the entirely plausible presumption that they could bowl out New Zealand and chase a distant but attainable target so that the natural order of things would be restored at last. It would be about time after a series which had taken wholly unexpected turns.
Peter Fulton, Two Meter Peter himself, ensured that the natural order was not only left unrestored but turned on its head. The odds on Fulton playing the innings of the series would have been slightly longer than him riding the Grand National winner.
He complemented his first innings hundred, also his first in Test matches, with another century of a quite different hue. His blazing contribution of 110 came in two distinct parts: 14no from 66 balls overnight his remaining 96 runs came from 99.
Fulton's sobriquet is actually a slight misnomer since he is only 1.98m but he seemed visibly to grow the extra two centimetres during this innings. Before this series, before this match it has seemed highly improbable that the suggestion could be made that England's bowlers would not have a clue how to bowl to Peter Fulton when he was on the rampage.
But so it came to pass as lengths were missed or misjudged and Fulton came at them. A stump microphone was heard to pick up the assertion from the England wicketkeeper Matt Prior that Fulton has no off side shots. Nor does he but it mattered not as he plundered to mid-wicket or straight down the ground, where he hit Stuart Broad for the six to bring up his second hundred of the match.
It was the 71st time that a batsman had scored hundreds in both innings of a Test, the fourth by a New Zealander following Glenn Turner, Geoff Howarth and Andrew Jones. Fulton was irrepressible and England were powerless to stop him in ways that could not have been envisaged.
There are questions that now need to be asked about the bowling attack. They have missed Graeme Swann mightily in this series, for Monty Panesar has not brought the cunning, the wisdom and the control.
But the fast bowlers have been especially disappointing in this match. Denied reverse swing as they knew they would be by the lushness of the outfield they have not been able to match their opponents in obtaining the more conventional variety, which is a handy tool to have in the box. They have laboured, they have been uninspiring and uninspired, they have failed to think on their feet.
New Zealand were 35 for 3 after third day's play from 23 overs and knocked that into a cocked hat on the fourth day by adding 206 in 34.2 overs. Brendon McCullum, as is to be expected, was every bit as brutal as Fulton, making his third half century of the series, his unbeaten 68 this time taking 57 balls. His 248 runs in four innings of the series have spanned 268 balls.
England brought a confession to the table after the day was over. "It is not the sort of conclusion to the winter tour we would have wanted," said their batting coach, Graham Gooch. "We wanted to finish strongly going into our summer, we wanted to build on the sort of Test cricket we played in India. We've got to be disappointed we can't be happy with the way we have played."
Gooch is as mystified as everybody else why this has happened. When England left India in December they had won 2-1 and were cocks of the walks again. Only South Africa stood above them in the world rankings and surely New Zealand would fold like the sails of their America's Cup yacht in a strong wind. It has resolutely refused to happen except in one innings and for England it has been an unequal struggle to find a response.
"I think it's a great reality check that you can't take any team lightly and you can't play people on what it says in a ranking or on a piece of paper," said Gooch. "You have to play good cricket on the field to compete and certainly in two out of three matches so far, New Zealand have been in the ascendancy."
When England batted they were in immediate difficulty. A period of calm followed but two wickets in the last five overs of the day restored the new natural order.Reuse content