New Zealand v England, 1st Test, Hamilton, 3rd day March 7, 2008

Scarred England are kidding nobody


A rare stroke of aggression from Kevin Pietersen who described his 131-ball 42 as one of his best © Getty Images
 

The third day at Hamilton was either stultifying or gripping, depending on how slowly you like to cook your contests. England creaked along at a rate of 2.14 an over, gas mark 1 by the standards of the modern game, but New Zealand kept stirring the pot gently with wickets at opportune moments, to leave their opponents in an undeniable stew. There have been all manners of remarks about the turgid nature of this pitch, but they've been completely at odds with the hand-grenade mentality that has gripped England's batsmen. If they are this anxious on day three of the contest, imagine how they'll cope if asked to bat time on a final-day minefield?

Hyperbole is a part of Kevin Pietersen's game, and at times you have to take his comments with a pinch of salt, but it was pretty revealing after play when he described his agonisingly slow innings of 42 as one of the best of his life. "Test matches are tough and I love playing challenging cricket," he said. "There is nothing better than having to show up and really fight for your runs and beat yourself up in terms of stuff that you go and do. It's great and I love it. The tougher it is, the better." Pietersen may have been pumped which bodes well for England's prospects, but that's not the talk of a man who's envisaging a peaceful death to this game.

There's no question that Pietersen scrapped hard for his runs. Only twice has he played a significant innings at a slower tempo than his strike-rate of 32.06, and both came in the midst of terminal batting collapses at Melbourne and Sydney last winter. In fact, there's been a cautiousness about his cricket that runs very close to negativity since that series. It would not be surprising if it stems from a lack of faith in his colleagues.

Today was a day for hundreds, that most elusive of landmarks for England's cricketers. Instead, each man batted himself to a standstill, focusing so intently on survival that they forgot to keep the scoreboard moving. If you leave aside the anomaly of a desperately poor West Indies side in May and June, that's been the attitude of their cricket ever since the Ashes - in particular since Adelaide, when the dangers of attritional cricket have never been more lividly displayed.

New Zealand themselves know a thing or two about the safety-first approach, and nothing could have played more perfectly into their hands. "When a team gets defensive, it let's us play with tactics," said their offspinner, Jeetan Patel. "It lets us bowl in different areas, makes us ask different questions which is great, rather than have them ask us different questions. We can bowl dead straight or half a foot outside off stump and see what's going to happen. We get a chance to play the game and play it our way."

Patel is a cricketer that England have treated with disdain so far on this tour. Dimitri Mascarenhas flogged him for four sixes in a row in the Twenty20 at Auckland and Pietersen himself climbed into him in the warm-up in Dunedin. He is playing only his second Test match, and a side with self-belief would have bullied him out of the attack, as Pietersen briefly threatened to do with his third-ball swat for six over long-on.

But then Daniel Vettori dropped a man back to the rope as cover, and Pietersen didn't play another shot in anger for 40 overs, a fact of which he was perversely proud. "I'm a mature enough player, and in my whole innings I didn't try anything stupid," he said. "I'm happy I didn't chuck it away today." Except, of course, he did, with a bat-padded chip back to the bowler Vettori, a dismissal he wrote off as "unfortunate". That may be so, but the Pietersen of old would have had 130 on the board by the time his luck ran out, and England would have had enough momentum to put all thoughts of defeat to one side.

 
 
"Who knows, they might not bat," he shrugged. "They might set us a total or we might bowl them out and it could be like the Adelaide Test. You just have to go out there with your game plan, and when the ball comes into your areas you hit it." I'm sure Pietersen mentioned Adelaide as a show of strength and certainty, an assurance that the scars have healed. Somehow it didn't come across like that
 

It's not his fault, of course. The criticism is all relative because he can only do what he thinks is right for the situation, and as it turned out he was right not to go for broke because his colleagues didn't give the impression they would have coped had he failed. Besides, New Zealand's bowlers applied themselves superbly, producing a five-pronged assault that put England's feeble attack to shame. "I thought they'd come at us a bit harder," said Patel, "but it just shows how well we did bowl, how straight and how much we did with the ball, which is exciting for the last day."

The day was particularly notable for the odd ripping delivery that gripped and popped, a situation that gave Brendan McCullum a hairy day behind the stumps. "The footies are a bit ridgy," explained Patel, "so if it hits the ridge it'll go, and go high. We might have missed a few stumpings but to get them you'd have to be a bit genius-like. I think it just creates doubt, and it's exciting in the sense that one will turn one way and one will bounce, and one won't."

Those ridges could be crucial to England's survival. If they crumble, as they were prone to do for Muttiah Muralitharan during the Sri Lanka series, the bounce will die with them and the spinners' threat will be negated. If they endure, or deepen as the match wears on, then there may be trouble ahead. Either way, New Zealand have precisely what England's game so desperately lacks. Confidence and momentum.

"I'd be happy with a day: we could bowl them out in a day," said Patel, when asked about the timing of a possible declaration. "But if we rock and roll them in the first half-hour tomorrow, it might be a day and a bit. It just depends what we do in the morning, how we come out. If we come out firing and excited about what could happen, which we will, then we've got the game in our hands." New Zealand have a right to be excited. With McCullum in the form of his life and Ross Taylor enjoying his happiest birthday ever, it's unlikely we'll be seeing two runs an over when their second innings comes around.

Pietersen, the epitome of a confident cricketer, was clearly worried about how this match is panning out. "This wicket is deteriorating," he warned. "You should see how far Patel was spinning his balls, and Vettori got a few to go too. It's definitely changing and I think batting on the last day will be difficult. You just have to go out there and play the situation.

"Who knows, they might not bat," he shrugged. "They might set us a total or we might bowl them out and it could be like the Adelaide Test. You just have to go out there with your game plan, and when the ball comes into your areas you hit it." I'm sure Pietersen mentioned Adelaide as a show of strength and certainty, an assurance that the scars have healed. Somehow it didn't come across like that.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo