Ben Stokes looked to have done enough to win the opening match of this one-day series for England. New Zealand clearly didn’t read the script, though, as they grabbed a dramatic final-over victory in Hamilton.
This was Stokes’ first game since the late-night incident in Bristol last September that resulted in a charge of affray and saw him suspended for the entirety of England’s Ashes tour.
He looked to have made a decisive contribution, too, in his first international in five months when, with the hosts cruising on 205 for three in pursuit of 285, he broke a 178-run fourth-wicket stand with the dismissal of Tom Latham after being brought back on to bowl more in desperation than expectation by captain Eoin Morgan in the 40th over.
That sparked a collapse of three for ten in 12 balls as New Zealand slipped to 215 for six, Stokes also picking up the wicket of Colin De Grandhomme in his next over after Tom Curran had Henry Nicholls caught.
The game looked decisively settled in England’s favour when Ross Taylor ‘s brilliant innings of 113 was ended by a stumping off Adil Rashid. But New Zealand, now 244 for seven and needing 41 to win from 25 balls, remarkably got over the line with four balls to spare after a brutal cameo by Mitchell Santner.
The tail-ender hit 45 from 27 balls, with the last of those seeing Santner smash a match-winning six off Chris Woakes to make light work of the nine runs his side needed from the final over.
If the conclusion was dramatic, it felt anti-climactic for an England team who won their previous series 4-1 in Australia without Stokes.
The 26-year-old ended up with figures of two for 43 from eight overs here after he had made 12 from 22 balls with the bat.
For Morgan, it was a positive return, even if the result for his team was ultimately disappointing.
“I was really pleased with Ben,” he said. “He’s delighted to be back, he’s told everybody that. It’s an awesome feeling, when you’ve been away and you’re back in a fun environment, with lots of good friends around.
“He travelled really well. After the first spell, he said he could have bowled longer, but we didn’t really need him at that stage. We needed something to happen, and he’s the kind of player who can make something happen.”
Having lost the toss and been asked to bat, it was a decent-enough effort given their usually-aggressive approach had to be tempered because of the conditions.
That total had looked enough when New Zealand were reduced to 28 for three in the tenth over of their reply, Woakes removing Colin Munro and Martin Guptill either side of David Willey’s dismissal of home captain Kane Williamson.
Yet the partnership between Latham and Taylor laid the platform for a successful chase that not even Stokes’ double strike could derail.
Losing is not a feeling an England one-day team who have won eight of their past nine series are used to.
Indeed, this was their first defeat with a series on the line for more than a year, the losses to South Africa at Lord’s last summer and Australia in Adelaide last month coming in dead rubbers.
New Zealand, though, are a tough proposition on their own turf having whitewashed West Indies and Pakistan in their past two series during a run of eight successive victories.
England knew they had to bat well to apply genuine scoreboard pressure and thanks to Root – whose 71 was his eighth 50-plus score in 11 matches this winter – and Buttler’s 79 from 65 balls they looked to have done just that.
However, in retrospect, the failure of either of that pair to go on and reach three figures like Taylor is probably where this game was lost.
Despite this defeat, England will take solace from Stokes’ return, with Buttler admitting: “Ben bowled the quickest of the lot. He hit the gloves hard. It is fantastic to have him back. We are delighted.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies