England's meticulous preparations for the Test series took a slight turn for the worse today. Their bowlers were treated disdainfully in the morning and their batsmen were dealt with unceremoniously in the afternoon on the third day of the match against New Zealand A.
It was far from ideal and though much of the damage was rectified in the last session, the lack of match practice for the top order is a particular worry ahead of the First Test, which begins next Wednesday in Dunedin.
The tourists can point to the fact that they redeemed themselves by finishing on 256 for nine, a lead of 333. They could still lose this match tomorrow but they are more likely to win it.
However, the whirling blades of wicketkeeper Matt Prior, who made 68 from 76 balls, and Graeme Swann, who thumped 41 not out from 44 balls, allied to the pragmatic defence of Joe Root and Ian Bell could not disguise the shortcomings. England slipped to 67 for four after their opponents, instead of being bowled out cheaply as planned, declared their first innings at 349 for seven.
Nick Compton, who has been designated to continue opening the batting with skipper Alastair Cook, was the first to go and he may be England’s biggest concern. Having made 21 in the first innings he went for only one today, mis-hooking a short ball from the burly Mark Gillespie, who hardly whistles them down.
When Cook was adjudged to be narrowly run out the afternoon was at least left free for Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen to spend some much-needed time in the middle.
Instead of seizing the opportunity Trott and Pietersen spurned it, both caught at the wicket in different circumstances. Pietersen (left) turned a leg-side ball from Neil Wagner behind only for wicketkeeper BJ Watling to leap across to his left and pouch the chance close to the ground.
Trott flailed at a wide ball outside off stump which Watling took smartly moving this time to his right.
All the way back to the pavilion, Trott muttered to himself and no degree in lip reading was needed to recognise that he was not congratulating himself on the turn of events.
A period of retrenchment followed until Prior decided to defend the way he knows best — by attacking.
He pulled and drove with equal facility, dominating the fifth-wicket partnership of 78 with Root. Once more, Root was impressive, tailoring his game to England’s needs while Prior counter-attacked, and he played only one scoring shot, a boundary, in his first 39 balls. The youngster then swiftly struck three more fours and seemed to be warming to the task when he took a stride down the pitch and somehow prodded a catch to gully. Prior was gone soon afterwards, swishing at Wagner and providing Watling with his fourth catch. Bell’s careful solidity and Swann’s bold defiance towards the end were necessary for the avoidance of further embarrassment.
The morning had been abject for the tourists in general and Graham Onions, the Durham fast bowler, in particular. Beginning the day on 224 for six, the NZ XI added 125 in 21 overs. Corey Anderson was in rampant mood and was utterly dismissive of Onions from whom he took 22 in an over and made 67 in 62 balls.
Onions finished with one for 131 in 22 overs but there was no reward either with the second new ball for Stuart Broad, whose six overs yielded 38 runs. Watling was more circumspect but reached an untroubled fifty and the home side decided to declare, assuming rightly that they could make it difficult for England.