It was the most destructive of all Test innings. For once, the bald figures were as breathtaking as the summary execution. In eight minutes short of four hours at the Jade Stadium in Christchurch yesterday, Nathan Astle of New Zealand made 222 from 168 balls in the First Test against England. He struck 28 fours and 11 sixes. The double century arrived in 153 balls, the second hundred took a mere 39, and they were only the most significant in a catalogue of records.
For all its unprecedented extravagance, Astle's batting, as he probably knew throughout its duration, was performed in a losing cause. New Zealand, faced with a crippling target of 550, were defeated by 98 runs. Yet, the relief when he edged one behind instead of smacking it into the far distance as he had done so often before belonged entirely to England.
The tourists had won by a length, being reduced rapidly to a neck, but at one point they might have expected the opposition to be tailed off. It was a magnificent Test match; it lasted four days, all of which produced singular individual performances, the most thrilling off them in the final hours. England, let it not be forgotten, won after being 0 for 2 on the first morning. New Zealand, it should always be remembered, made 451 in their second innings after being 252 for 6 on the last afternoon.
Astle is from Christchurch and this was probably the best hometown innings since Geoff Boycott made his hundredth hundred at Headingley in 1977. There was maybe something of a difference in their approaches.
If Astle could hardly believe the scale of his achievement in the moments afterwards, he also dwelt on the error – his error – which consigned his side to their certain defeat. When he is much older he will recall in graphic detail how he repeatedly launched into balls pitched on or outside off stump and marmalised some perfectly respectable bowling, but not last night. Last night, he remembered Graham Thorpe.
It was Thorpe who had made a wonderful 200 not out for England the day before, which was then the third fastest Test double century and is now the fourth. It was Thorpe whom Astle dropped at slip when the batsman had made a mere four. If you were being really tough in these matters you could surmise that Astle had 196 to make before he was back in credit.
"It's probably one of those innings I'll never play again," said Astle. "But we're 1-0 down and the biggest disappointment for me was dropping Thorpe on four. That was a big turning point in the game. I had to try and go make up for that.
"I can't really explain it, it was just one of those days when everything went to the boundary. When Ian Butler got out we still needed a couple of hundred so I just went on playing my shots and in this game you never know what can happen. When you're chasing 550 and there were only 100 runs to go that's not that many and maybe we should have pulled it back a bit earlier. But I thought the momentum was ours."
Both the captains recognised what Astle had done. Nasser Hussain, of England, was grimly aware that he had been in a game. "That was a magnificent Test match. He struck the ball brilliantly. We mixed it up, bowled slower balls, bouncers, yorkers and wherever you bowled it he just hit it for six.
"For us to win a game when the wicket just got better and better and they batted at the best of times in both innings just shows we have a bit of character about us," said Hussain.
"We happened to win a Test match by nearly a hundred runs at the end of it and that's how it'll look in a few years' time, but that was a magnificent Test match."
Stephen Fleming, the New Zealand captain, described Astle's innings as the cleanest hitting he had ever seen and found nobody prepared to pick an argument. "He's a magnificent player and you saw him at his absolute best today."
The measure of Astle's exhibition, last-ditch though it may have been, was that it was enacted against proper bowling by bowlers bowling properly. In all, 117 of the deliveries he received, were on or outside off stump and he scored 192 runs from them.
He might at last have nicked Matthew Hoggard to James Foster but England probably know he will be back. By now, Hussain's team probably feel they have seen too much of him already. It was Astle who shared in that staunch last- wicket partnership five years ago when New Zealand drew a match they were destined to lose. He made 102 not out as he and Danny Morrison put on 106.
It was Astle who assembled a century of huge enterpprise at Old Trafford in 1999 which propelled the Kiwis to the match and – eventually – series victory.
It was Astle who made 122 not out in the one-day series decider between the teams last month in Dunedin. And we all thought that bristled with flair and entertainment.
Astle is what is known in professional sporting circles as free-spirited. He makes a complicated game seem straightforward because he refuses to become too involved in the intricacies of technique. "I need to keep everything simple," he has often said. "He tends just to go with the flow," said Fleming of Astle in the joint tour diary they wrote a couple of years ago.
He began playing for Canterbury in his early twenties as a medium pacer who might (or might not) occasionally bat a bit. Firstly, he became a one-day dasher and then something more substantial in Tests. Long since an integral part of Kiwi teams, he will not, one imagines, be considered for the captaincy, even were it to become available. Much too carefree for that.
England's victory was the 1,001st in the 1,594 Test matches which have been played since 1877. Astle left one record in the old millennium of victory and defeat. Although his double century was the quickest in terms of balls, it took 218 minutes. A chap in 1930 did it four minutes quicker. Name of Bradman.