March 27, 2013

A large step forward, but no cigar

Has the Auckland Test marked a turnaround in New Zealand's fortunes? The trip to England will tell

There was more flow than ebb for New Zealand against England in the final Test, though they continued to revive the country's long-suffering fortunes.

Reliable top-order batting, penetrative first-innings bowling and astute captaincy provided sound reasons for optimism heading to England in May.

The opening day was pivotal to momentum. No one could have predicted a score of 250 for 1 at stumps; hence the standing ovation from those pepper-potted within Eden Park's cavernous auditorium. The chance to press for a rare series win was imminent.

Peter Fulton's switch from looking vulnerable outside off stump in Wellington to reaching his maiden Test century in Auckland, was the catalyst in New Zealand's resurgence. After a three-and-a-quarter year hiatus he was a revelation, becoming the fourth New Zealander after Glenn Turner, Geoff Howarth and Andrew Jones to score two centuries in a Test. It was a fine culmination of a summer in which he has been behind just Martin Crowe in 1986-87 (1676 runs at 93.11) on the list for the highest aggregate of first-class runs (1249 at 59.48) in a season.

Fulton employed a simple strategy: caution for anything outside off stump and punishment for anything drifting towards his pads. He scored 162 (66%) of his 246 runs on the leg side. The likelihood of greener pitches at Lord's and Headingley will present a sterner test, but Fulton's methodical, undemonstrative approach earned respect from a public craving cricketing folk heroes.

Fulton and Kane Williamson's 181-run second-wicket partnership highlighted a strength of the series. Until the mini-collapse in the second innings, the No. 4, Ross Taylor, did not bat before the 16th over. The fall of the second wicket over the series came at 91, 42, 56, 181 and 1. Compare that to 7, 29, 6 and 24 against South Africa.

The downside? Of batsmen four through seven, Brendon McCullum was the only one to pass 50 in either innings in Auckland. New Zealand lost their last nine wickets for 183 in the first innings. Still, there are hints that mental and technical strides have been made since the horrors of 45 in South Africa.

The first-innings bowling was sharp: England were dismissed for 204. The New Zealand pace bowlers made up for a lack of height - on average, they are about 9cm shorter than their England counterparts - by regularly pitching the ball about a yard further up the wicket to maximise swing. Only three dismissals were not lbw or caught by wicketkeeper or first slip.

The efforts of Trent Boult (his first-innings return of 6 for 68 was his best in first-class cricket), Tim Southee and Neil Wagner moved the hosts into a strong position to push for a second home series victory in 18 attempts against England. The only prior success was in 1983-84.

The New Zealanders finished one wicket shy, which again raises questions about their ability to take 20 wickets, given this was the fifth straight occurrence. Still, with England 304 for 9, and 19 balls left, it could have been different. There was no lack of heart on a largely unresponsive pitch. Boult charging in during the final over summed up their effort.

Some argued New Zealand batted too long, setting England a target of 481, but that school of thought benefited from hindsight. Fifty fewer runs would have offered a genuine incentive to England to go for the win

Bruce Martin made less of an impact, taking none for 130 off 65 overs across the match. He showed promise in the first two matches, taking nine wickets at 29.22 and flourishing with the bat in the lower order. However, he could make no headway on a tiring pitch on the final day in Auckland, when it counted. He appeared to bowl too full, looking to elicit drives, rather than bowling slightly shorter, searching for erratic bounce and aiming to catch a glove or bat shoulder. Exacerbating the situation was part-time offspinner Kane Williamson taking 4 for 44 in the second innings, but he had the advantage of being able to bowl into more entrenched footmarks. Martin still deserves an England tour squad place, but if Daniel Vettori returns to full fitness, Vettori is likely to be preferred for the Tests.

The Test offered a further insight into McCullum's tenure as skipper. Debate centred on his decision not to enforce the follow-on, despite a 239-run lead. McCullum's decision was logical: rest the bowlers and get England to bat last on a surface which could break up. Okay, it didn't, but there was merit in the thinking.

Some argued New Zealand batted too long, setting England a target of 481, but that school of thought benefited from hindsight. Fifty fewer runs would have offered a genuine incentive to England, as a world-record chase, beyond the current 418. McCullum didn't need the added pressure. He gave his bowlers four and a half sessions to do the job and they were one good piece of cricket (and several dropped catches) away from completing it.

Few were quibbling when England went into the final day at 90 for 4. Most predicted a finish by tea. Optimism still abounded with England 237 for 7 heading into the final session.

McCullum could afford to stack the slip cordon and crowd the bat, delivering the aggression he has often sought a licence for. Attrition reigned. Runs became irrelevant; the final overs had eight of nine fielders stationed within a late-afternoon shadow of the bat. Prior's seventh Test century and Broad's 103 minutes without scoring (breaking Geoff Allott's 14-year-old record by two minutes) were the major components in sealing off New Zealand's chances.

McCullum was quite the martyr, playing through a hamstring strain until the end. He placed his participation in the IPL (starting next week) in jeopardy. New Zealanders want to see more of that. This Test was a step in the right direction for McCullum's side; a true judgement on their renaissance will be determined on the return leg.

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday

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