TWO DAYS is a long time in Test cricket when England are concerned. After a spirited performance with the ball on day one, all England required to rescue their summer was a solid day's batting on day two. On a slow but unresponsive pitch, it was beyond them, and unless they mount an impressive rearguard action, they now look destined to replace New Zealand and go bottom of Wisden's Test rankings.
On the evidence here and in the previous two Tests it is entirely deserved. England's batting is in a parlous state and they ended the day 150 for 7, some 86 runs in arrears on New Zealand's total of 236. Over the past 13 Tests, they have failed to take a first- innings lead and their attempts to set a total here veered from the strokeless to the suicidal.
Against a vintage West Indies side there might be some mitigation. In a deciding Test against a New Zealand side missing two of their leading pace bowlers in Simon Doull and Geoff Allott it is bewildering. Five selectors or three, it makes no difference to the way England bat.
Debutants, established players, all struggled to rise to the challenge. Indeed, only the captain, Nasser Hussain, with 40, and Mark Ramprakash looked comfortable. New Zealand again bowled well, but not devastatingly so, though Daniel Vettori, having scored another Test fifty, was impressive with an unbroken four-hour spell that brought 2 for 44 from 31 overs.
Hussain's month away from the middle may have been a blessing and before his dismissal to a rush of red blood, he appeared free of the contagion afflicting his batsmen. So far this series while Vettori has scored two half-centuries England's top six have managed just four from 36 completed innings. One shudders to think of the indignities that Allan Donald and co may inflict this winter.
The initial breach came immediately after lunch. Michael Atherton, in fine form before being recalled to England colours, fell to the fourth ball of Dion Nash's second over after lunch. The delivery, which did little except land on an awkward line and length, found Atherton caught in two minds over whether to play or leave. By the time he had decided to use the bat, the edge was nestling in Stephen Fleming's hands at first slip.
Atherton knew it was an unforced error, and he showed his annoyance by cuffing a bail from its mooring as he departed. It was an action that brought a quite word, though no punishment, from the match referee, Peter van der Merwe.
As it does so often when England bat, the breach was left unrepaired and Darren Maddy, who had got off the mark with his first ball in Test cricket, fell in the next over to Vettori. The dismissal reeked of naivety. Having beaten Maddy's outside edge, Vettori slipped in an arm ball. It was the old three-card trick usually reserved for schoolboys and tail- enders.
The established players did not fare any better. This series, Graham Thorpe has played like a man with an intolerable burden on his shoulders. Rumour is that he no longer enjoys his cricket and sees it as a chore. Apart from missing half of last winter's tour, he has been on the road for nine years and looks at odds with the game. Certainly it is at odds with him and the ball from Chris Cairns that he diverted to first slip was a decent one. Mind you, he played it as if it had exploded rather than bounced a fraction.
Stewart appeared to be caused much indecision by Vettori, who forced him to play on in the second over after tea. One of the side-effects of making him keep wicket is that he is likely to start his innings against spin, never his strength.
After Surrey's demise, it was the turn of Essex to fall with Ronnie Irani following lbw two overs after Hussain had hooked Cairns to Matthew Bell at deep square leg. Replays showed Irani to have been unlucky as there was a suspicion of bat.
Mark Ramprakash, dropped by Nash off Vettori when the batsman was on four, managed to settle enough to add 47 with Andy Caddick, who struck the spinner for a six over long-off. The recovery did not last, though, and driving at the left-arm Shayne O'Connor, Caddick dragged an inswinger on to his leg-stump to leave England listing on 141 for 7.
England's bowlers had allowed things to lapse against the tail-enders and New Zealand added 79 for the ninth wicket in reaching a not uncompetitive total of 236. Vettori made 51 and Fleming, following a painful blow to his shoulder from Caddick in the first over of the morning, ended the innings unbeaten on 66. Unless Ramprakash, unbeaten on 30, does the same, his obdurate knock may be the decisive feature of this match.
THE OVAL SCOREBOARD
England won toss
NEW ZEALAND - First Innings
*S P Fleming not out 66
332 min, 234 balls, 3 fours
D L Vettori lbw b Tufnell 51
79 min, 48 balls, 7 fours
S B O'Connor lbw b Caddick 1
5 min, 2 balls
Extras (b9,lb9,w2,nb2) 22
Total (439 min, 102.1 overs) 236
Fall (cont): 9-235 (Vettori), 10-236 (O'Connor).
Bowling: Caddick 33.1-17-66-3 (nb1) (5-2-3-0 11-8-12-1 7-4-14-0 10-3- 37-1 0.1-0-0-1), Mullally 26-12-34-2 (w1) (7-5-5-0 8-3-7-1 4-1-7-1 7-3- 15-0), Giddins 16-4-41-1 (w1) (5-1-9-0 5-2-16-1 4-1-10-0 2-0-6-0), Tufnell 16-3-39-3 (nb1) (2-1-8-0 1-0-1-0 4-0-15 -2 7-2-9-0 2-0-6-1), Irani 11- 3-38-1 (5-1-16-1 2-1-6-0 3-1-7-0 1-0-9-0).
Progress: 200: 408 min, 96 overs.
Vettori's 50: 77 min, 47 balls, 7 fours.
ENGLAND - First Innings
M A Atherton c Fleming b Nash 10
58 min, 45 balls, 1 four
D L Maddy b Vettori 14
63 min, 48 balls, 1 four
*N Hussain c Bell b Cairns 40
129 min, 111 balls, 2 fours
G P Thorpe c Fleming b Cairns 10
34 min, 22 balls, 1 four
A J Stewart b Vettori 11
76 min, 56 balls
M R Ramprakash not out 30
121 min, 99 balls, 2 fours
R C Irani lbw b Cairns 1
8 min, 4 balls
A R Caddick b O'Connor 15
65 min, 49 balls, 1 four, 1 six
A D Mullally not out 2
31 min, 22 balls
Extras (b1,lb5,w5,nb6) 17
Total (7 wkt, 295 min, 75 overs) 150
Fall: 1-25 (Atherton), 2-29 (Maddy), 3-46 (Thorpe), 4-87 (Stewart), 5- 91 (Hussain), 6-94 (Irani), 7-141 (Caddick).
To bat: P C R Tufnell, E S H Giddins.
Bowling: Cairns 16-6-30-3 (nb4) (6-4-11-0 5-1-8-1 5-1-11-2), Nash 14- 5-40-1 (nb1,w5) (4-2-7-0 5-2-13-1 5-1-20-0), O'Connor 13-3-30-1 (nb1) (2-0-6-0 5-1-18-0 6-2-6-1), Vettori 31-11-44-2, Astle 1-1-0-0 (one spell each).
Progress: lunch: 24-0 (Maddy 14, Atherton 10) 12 overs. 50: 117 min, 29.1 overs. Tea: 84-3 (Hussain 37, Stewart 10) 44 overs. 100: 210 mins, 52.3 overs. 150: 293 min, 71.1 overs.
Umpires: G Sharp (Eng) and S Venkataraghavan (Ind).
TV replay umpire: J H Hampshire.
Match referee: P L van der Merwe.
Compiled by Jo King
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies