Uncompromising New Zealand must look to sustain form
Yes, the first Test was a draw but New Zealand's effort against England in Dunedin was a candidate to be prefixed by "honourable".
The highest compliment that can be paid to the hosts, given their recent dire Test form in South Africa, is that a neutral observer would have struggled to identify who was ranked second in the world and who was eighth.
Terms such as "moral victory" will also be bandied about, but the New Zealand XI that started at the University Oval must ask how it will sustain that form when the second Test starts Thursday in Wellington.
New Zealand have only won one series in 17 against England at home (1983-84). Further history beckons but the demonstration of parity in the first Test needs perspective. On England's last tour in 2008 New Zealand won the first Test but lost the next two.
There is a certain irony toasting the efforts of a side facing scrutiny over a perceived booze culture. The incumbent players deserve credit for absorbing the resulting pressures and applying themselves professionally. Coach Mike Hesson and captain Brendon McCullum can take heart the team might be headed in the right direction. The packed crowds were won over. Fans were seen shaking their heads incredulously and remarking "who would have thought", particularly after the first day when play was possible. That was one of the most dominant in New Zealand Test history, dismissing England for 167 and responding to be 131 without loss. It set an uncompromising tone.
Neil Wagner justified his selection in Doug Bracewell's absence; debutants Bruce Martin and Hamish Rutherford played like veterans; Peter Fulton proved he was worthy of a recall after more than three years' domestic toil; and McCullum exhibited thoughtful captaincy in his first home Test in charge. Consistency was a hallmark, although New Zealand will be irked by failing to take 20 wickets for a third consecutive Test after the same thing happened in South Africa.
Regardless, it was hard to blame the bowlers. After razing England for 167 in the first innings they were confronted with an unresponsive pitch on which to do the same on days four and five. Effort was not lacking. Barring injury, the same four specialist bowlers should be recalled at the Basin Reserve. Yet slight doubts still surround how nightwatchman Steve Finn lasted 286 minutes on his way to 56 and how Alastair Cook and Nick Compton broke a 29-year record for opening partnerships against New Zealand when they posted 231.
With Tim Southee and Trent Boult guaranteed places in New Zealand's first XI, Wagner's performance faced scrutiny. He passed muster on his home ground with the best figures of 4 for 42 in the first innings. The 26-year-old ripped through the heart of the England top order, dismissing Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell. His aggression was palpable and the inswinger he delivered to trap Kevin Pietersen lbw (and set up an unsuccessful hat-trick) won the Oscar for ball of the innings. A spell of eight overs, 2 for 20 in the second innings where he dismissed Jonathan Trott and Pietersen also ranked high. Wagner never gave up on his way to bowling 43 overs and taking 3 for 141.
Martin should also be retained. There was enough evidence in his first-innings 4 for 43 to suggest there is a place for left-arm orthodox bowling against the six out of seven right-handers in England's top order. His 41 runs with the bat helped too. McCullum showed complete faith in his bowler by positioning himself, sans helmet, at silly point in the first innings. He also brought about Broad's demise by posting Dean Brownlie to deep backward square leg for a lofted sweep.
The player likely to benefit least from the performance is Bracewell. He cut his foot cleaning up after a party at his flat and has also been ruled out of the second Test. He will struggle to oust the incumbents with his recent record. Since South Africa arrived a year ago he has taken 25 wickets at 44.84 in 11 Tests.
Not to be outdone by the bowlers, Rutherford and Fulton posted 158 in the first innings, New Zealand's first century opening partnership in 23 attempts. The last such stand was against Zimbabwe in January 2012. The last against England was 163 between Mark Richardson and Stephen Fleming in Nottingham in 2004; no opening stand has been higher against any team since. The pair might be the country's 21st opening partnership since 2005 but both looked settled having been selected on domestic form. They largely got behind the ball and played straight.
The 23-year-old Rutherford became the ninth New Zealand batsman to score a century on debut. England's bowlers offered him too much width. Appropriately, Kane Williamson, the last New Zealander to achieve the feat in 2010, was at the wicket to give Rutherford a hug. His 171 is the country's second highest debut score behind Mathew Sinclair's 214 against West Indies in 1999 in Wellington.
The University Oval - where Rutherford made his highest first-class score of 239, almost a year ago, against Wellington - looked every bit his home ground despite him only finding a permanent place in Otago's first-class team around the same time.
McCullum's post-match tribute was astute, saying it wasn't so much the runs Rutherford made, but how quickly he made them to offer a chance at posting a result over the abridged four days. The pressure now goes on the injured Martin Guptill to fight his way back.
The middle order also responded, even if only McCullum progressed beyond 50. Fears over Jimmy Anderson's swing and Finn's bounce were misplaced. They could return if, as expected, the Basin Reserve presents a harder, grassier pitch.
Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday