England v New Zealand, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, 3rd day June 12, 2004

Trojan horseplay

The Wisden Verdict by Emma John



Chris Cairns - it's his birthday tomorrow as well © Getty Images

If the crowd in the Hound Road stand seemed a little distracted today, you could hardly blame them. There was a fancy-dress competition to be won, and with Phil Tufnell was parading at the end of his 500-mile walk, there were more evictions than a Big Brother evening. And watching New Zealand gently inflate their second-innings lead was not exactly the kind of cricket you'd take with you to your grave.

Still, there was enough to tweak the odd eyebrow. First up was Graham Thorpe's dismissal, given out edging down leg to the keeper when nowhere near hitting the ball. If some of the players have dropped their game for this dead match, then so has Simon "Awful" Taufel, normally considered the best of his breed. As well as Thorpe, today he gave out Fleming to a ball that would have cleared the bails by six inches, and Styris to a catch behind that he'd scarcely have touched if he'd been wielding a railway sleeper.

It was Mark Richardson's innings that really had folk passing the Optrex as they rubbed their eyes in wonder. Arriving at the crease at the start of New Zealand's second innings, the Richardson checklist was complete - the crouch, the block, the leave, all present and correct. Then he started outscoring Fleming. Then came a beautiful straight drive and before you'd blinked an eye, he'd scored five boundaries in six overs. Dark talk began of body doubles. But on 41, the rush of blood stopped as quickly as it had begun. He didn't play a scoring stroke for three quarters of an hour, and was out for 49. Perhaps it was just something he ate.

Or perhaps it was evidence of the growing confidence in the New Zealand dressing-room. Considering how depleted their resources have been, New Zealand's dominance in this final Test has been astonishing. Was this another one of Fleming's fiendish tactics? A sort of Trojan horseplay, perhaps? We can't beat England with our regulars, so we'll fill the team with decoys. Bring me your lame, your crippled and your weak! And lo, they added unto their number Kyle Mills, and he did last only six overs.

England's complacency has certainly played a large part in their surprising downturn over the last two days. Without Chris Martin and Mills, New Zealand's bowling had the cutting edge of an own-brand box of clingfilm. But they still dismissed England in 85.3 overs - 35.3 overs less than England themselves had managed. Only three of England's specialist batsmen - Michael Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff and Graham Thorpe - could say with all honesty that they did not get themselves out. The others, notably today Geraint Jones, played some distinctly unworthy shots.

Asked who he thought had the upper hand as things stood, Chris Cairns admitted in the end-of-day press conference that it was a tight call, but: "I'd much rather be in our position." Tomorrow he plays his last innings in Test cricket, before embarking on his final overs as well. Oh, and he's also celebrating his birthday. You'd be brave to disagree with him.

Emma John is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer.