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March 13, 2008
A superbly crafted 97 from Tim Ambrose hauled England out of a deep hole on the first day against New Zealand in Wellington to keep their hopes of levelling the series alive. On a day of fluctuating fortunes, neatly split by the three sessions, England's batsmen lurched from the serene in the morning to an afternoon of recklessness in which they lost 5 for 77, before Ambrose and Paul Collingwood counterpunched with an unbroken sixth-wicket stand of 155.
And how they needed that partnership. New Zealand had reduced England to a perilous 156 for 5 at tea owing to Jacob Oram's remarkably miserly spell - 2 for 6 from nine overs - which cut a hole in England's fragile top-order. Whereas Michael Vaughan and Alastair Cook stroked their way coolly to an unbroken 79 at lunch, giving the impression their Hamilton horrors were a distant memory, it was as though England were batting on a minefield after the interval.
It took a wonderful delivery from Oram to dislodge Vaughan and begin the slide, however. Two balls after lunch Oram angled one into him, the ball cutting away slightly from Vaughan's forward push and it brushed the top of his off stump - an 80mph legbreak. England were prepared to treat him with rather more respect than perhaps he had earned. Admittedly his length was nagging, but by no means was he as unplayable as the strokelessness of England's batsmen suggested.
Regardless, he got the breakthrough New Zealand needed and followed it up with Cook's wicket - who earlier became the youngest England batsman to pass 2000 Test runs - to leave England tottering on 82 for 2. The totter quickly became a stumble, however, when Andrew Strauss was completely outfoxed by an excellent slower delivery from Kyle Mills. The solid, series-reviving work put in by Vaughan and Cook in the morning was quickly becoming diluted by New Zealand's sudden reawakening, and once Ian Bell fell for the scratchiest of 11s, shortly followed by Kevin Pietersen - bowled by the returning Mark Gillespie for 31 - England were in a hole.
Another session, however, and another reversal of fortunes as Ambrose and Collingwood not only patched up England's wounds, but set about taking the game to New Zealand. Unlike the funereal runrate that they stuck to in Hamilton, England fairly raced along in the final session, adding 135 as Ambrose grew in confidence with every stroke. As he showed with his 55 on debut last week - and as is so often the case with diminutive wicketkeepers - he was particularly savage on anything short, especially square of the wicket, and this is where New Zealand continued to feed him. His first boundary was square driven, his second elegantly guided through the covers - and once he hooked Martin for six over fine leg, he had raced to 25 from 24 balls.
Collingwood lacked the impish charm and muscular cuts of his younger team-mate but played the perfect older-sibling foil, defending grittily while (unlike in Hamilton) always keeping the scoring rate ticking over. Ambrose, though, was the dominant partner and brought up his second fifty in as many Tests with a fierce flay over the slips. It had only taken him 68 balls, and New Zealand's grip on the day was fast slipping and England had done what they could only dream of doing in Hamilton and score 100 in a session.
Oram continued to lumber in and produce the occasional unplayable delivery, but unlike any other England batsman, Ambrose was unfazed by the odd ball which spat sideways or cut him in half. As the day neared its close, the opportunity for Ambrose's maiden hundred became ever more likely after pulling Mills for a swivelled six over fine leg to take him into the nineties. Oram denied him the landmark with a wonderful last over, though the pair had registered a fine 150 partnership - England's first since Collingwood and Matt Prior put on 169 against West Indies last year.
England smacked 135 in the final session, proving that the best form of defence is attack, even for such a fragile side as this, and quick runs on the second morning should allow them to take the high ground.
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