Vettori: Ambrose's innings was the difference
New Zealand's captain, Daniel Vettori, was predictably despondent as he reflected on his side's 126-run defeat against England at Wellington, a result that levelled the series and gave England the momentum going into next week's decider in Napier. The match was played on the liveliest pitch that the teams are likely to encounter on this trip, and Vettori believed that New Zealand's failure to capitalise on their first-day breakthroughs was the decisive moment of the match.
On the first afternoon England's middle-order, visibly lacking in confidence after their horrific display at Hamilton, had been on the ropes at 136 for 5 after being asked to bat first. But the carefree Tim Ambrose, playing in only his second Test, counterattacked gamely in a superb 149-ball 102. England never looked back after that, and though their catching went awry in the second innings, a brace of five-wicket hauls from James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom cemented their dominance of the game.
"Obviously it's a very disappointed dressing-room," said Vettori. "If we reflect back on the Test match it was a pretty even one expect for the third session on the first day. We let Tim Ambrose get away through some poor bowling and by feeding his strengths, and if you analyse the rest of it, it was a pretty even contest. But because of that [first day] we left ourselves too much to do on the last day."
It wasn't immediately apparent just how significant Ambrose's efforts would be to the end result. Vettori had no qualms about bowling first at the Basin, a pitch that traditionally plays at its best on the second and third days, but admitted that New Zealand soon came to rue their missed opportunity of that first day.
"We didn't reflect on it at the time but as the days went on I suppose we started to realise how important that lost session was for us," he said. "We knew the wicket was pretty sporty, but for us to have made inroads and for them to post the score they did, we knew we had to bat very well and we didn't. But it just all comes back to that session. We fed [Ambrose's] strengths and he capitalised. He played very well too, and probably took the game away from us."
After the total team effort that New Zealand put together at Hamilton, the Wellington Test was something of a reality check for Vettori and his men. Although the selectors made no changes to the batsmen for Napier, definite shortcomings among their top-order were exposed on a pitch that aided England's younger, faster, seam attack. Their senior seamer, Chris Martin, was also visibly off the pace after his exertions in the first Test, while Kyle Mills finished the match with pain behind his left knee, a development that earned a precautionary call-up for the 19-year-old paceman, Tim Southee.
"I thought Jacob [Oram] and Kyle Mills were outstanding in the way they bowled on this wicket," said Vettori. "Chris may be a bit disappointed but we will give the seamers a bit of a rest before the final Test. They've had a huge workload over the last two Tests and hopefully they can get a rest and come into the third Test on a wicket that we know will be extremely flat, and a tough ask for our bowlers."
Even so, the Napier pitch is likely to suit New Zealand's adhesive style of play. Their success in Hamilton stemmed from the patience they were willing to show on a flat, lifeless deck. England contributed to their downfall by scoring at barely two runs an over, but they received an exclusive diet of wicket-to-wicket deliveries and were offered none of the width that Ambrose in particular was able to exploit in this Test.
"The Napier pitch will be very flat, we know what to expect," said Vettori. "It'll be a good deck and tough work for the bowlers but it was like that in Hamilton and we expect the same thing from them in Napier. It always does [have more pace than Hamilton] but if you get a couple of days of sun then it will tend to slow down a little bit. It's generally quite a good cricket wicket, because if you're prepared to put something in then you'll get something back."
That wasn't quite the case at Wellington, and in the build-up to the Test, Vettori was openly critical of the surface that Brett Sipthorpe, the curator, had prepared for this Test. But he refused to use it as an excuse in the aftermath of defeat. "If you want to be a good side then you have to adapt to all conditions and have to win in all types of conditions," he said. "You can't turn up in Sri Lanka and ask for the type of deck you want, so you have to be adaptable."
Vettori added that he doubted whether England would have wanted such a sporting track either, although the way in which their bowlers fared would suggest otherwise. England were devoid of both their most experienced men, Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison, but Anderson thrived in the first innings, Sidebottom starred in the second, and Stuart Broad played a vital enforcing role in both innings, on a pitch far removed from the lifeless horrors of his Colombo debut.
"You have to look at the way Anderson bowled," said Vettori. "For us to be bowled out for 198 in the first innings was purely down to him. He hit the right lengths early on and did a really good job. I suggest Hoggard would have done a similar job but to have fresh legs to do some very good work can only lift a team. New players coming in bring in enthusiasm and it lifts a team." They were sentiments that suggested that Southee could yet feature in the final match.
The spotlight, however, will be on New Zealand's batsmen when the third Test gets underway. Not only will it be Stephen Fleming's swansong after a record-breaking 14-year international career, it will also be a chance for Mathew Sinclair and Matthew Bell to repay the selectors' faith after sketchy starts to the series. Bell received a further boost after the game when he was awarded a Cricket New Zealand contract, but with a series top-score of 29, he'll need to keep up his interest payments.
"The top five didn't get the runs we required but thought Mathew [Sinclair] batted well in the second innings," said Vettori. "I enjoyed how positive he was in trying to get on with the job. That was exciting to see. In saying that, you still need to keep getting the runs to keep getting selected. The selectors have to ask some questions but hopefully those guys have a lot more runs in them, and more chances to score those runs."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo