England find their free spirit
Tim Ambrose, by his own admission, is not the nervous type. He unwinds by playing the guitar, and though he claims never to have been in a band, he clearly loves performing in front of an audience. His only thoughts in the dying moments of the day, with Jacob Oram bearing down on his outside edge, was to notch up the three runs he required for his maiden Test century as a reward for the crowd who'd backed him all the way.
That's a pretty ballsy approach from a man who has passed three figures only four times in a 76-match first-class career. But Ambrose's innings was not about stats, or even the status of the match. "I watched the other batsmen who were ahead of me, and they seemed to be having difficulties in keeping balls out," he said. "But I thought from quite early on in my innings I was seeing the ball quite well, and that I had to make sure that if it was in my area, I did not miss out."
See the ball, hit the ball. It's a simple philosophy, but one that England had singularly mislaid until Ambrose reminded them how it's done in this afternoon's session. Nothing exemplified their struggles more acutely than the strangulating success of Jacob Oram, a wicket-to-wicket trundler who has conceded 54 runs in 47 overs in the series to date.
"I'm the slowest of all of us and maybe they like pace," said Oram, whose final spell was played out to an ironic chorus of "boring boring!" from the Barmy Army. "I was copping a bit from the crowd and fair enough, because I'm not trying to bowl bouncers, yorkers, outswingers and inswingers. I try to do my job which is go for as few runs as possible and let the guys attack from the other end."
With his height and accuracy, Oram - like England's own Angus Fraser of yesteryear - was always liable to cause England problems if the pitch offered him any assistance, but they did not help their cause with the tentativeness of their strokeplay. Michael Vaughan was slow coming forward to the ball that trimmed his bails, as he demonstrated by falling a half-step forward moments after the ball had beat his bat, and Alastair Cook was similarly flat-footed when he hung his bat out to dry.
And those were the two batsmen who really got a start. Once they were out of the equation, the demons in the dressing-room did for the rest - even for Kevin Pietersen, whose form slump is showing no signs of being arrested. The counterattack that Ambrose initiated was the one that he would once had taken as a matter of course, but by the time Mark Gillespie beat him with a straight one, Pietersen had gone nine innings without so much as a half-century.
And thereafter it was all about Ambrose. Mind you, a word of caution needs to be uttered before his praises are sung too loudly. England's recent wicketkeepers have made a habit of starting their careers with a bang, only to fade alarmingly thereafter. There was Ambrose's former Sussex team-mate, Matt Prior, of course, who larruped the West Indians with a thrilling debut century at Lord's last summer. And before him, even the maligned Geraint Jones got in on the act. His scintillating century at Headingley in 2004 came in his third Test, and second on home soil. It too came against New Zealand, and then as now, the cut was his signature shot.
But comparisons are odious, and they cannot diminish the majesty of Ambrose's performance, nor its importance. England have been crying out for a counterattacking No. 7 in the mould of Adam Gilchrist or Brendon McCullum, one-and-a-half names that have caused lesser men to buckle. "He played his natural game under pressure," said England's coach, Peter Moores. "He can take a real pat on the back for that because when the ball was there to hit he was prepared to go after it."
New Zealand will be better prepared when they next face him, starting with tomorrow morning's first session. "As a shorter guy, I suppose the lengths you are accustomed to bowling are on the short side to him," said Oram. "He has an ability to play the cut shot pretty damn well. He got a few of those away and we bowled a bit too wide to him, and I'm not sure why that is.
"As a group, we didn't quite have the same rhythm and consistency as we showed at Hamilton, and that's disappointing," said Oram. "We were really proud of our efforts on a flat one in Hamilton, and we had better conditions to bowl on here, and couldn't produce the same efforts." In truth, they weren't allowed to produce the same efforts, thanks to a chivvying, disruptive 137-ball masterclass from a man whose cricket was as fresh as his mindset. England are a freer side this evening, and the series is - for the moment - right back in the balance.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo