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March 22, 2008
"It is a hole, a pretty big hole," said Kevin Pietersen, England's equivalent of the fourth emergency service. Almost before he had taken guard, England were wrapped around a tree at 4 for 3, driven off the road by New Zealand's hugely talented rookie, Tim Southee. On his first day of Test cricket, he didn't try to get ahead of himself, he merely held his line with great confidence, and induced a succession of errors from batsmen who should have known better. "We didn't help ourselves out," said Pietersen. "We've scrapped all series and it was a scrapping day again today."
It needn't have been, as Pietersen - and later Stuart Broad - demonstrated. Superbly though both played, they were aided by a wicket that eased as the day wore on, and will doubtless offer bountiful run-scoring opportunities when New Zealand's turn comes, much earlier than expected, tomorrow afternoon. "Everyone was expecting it to be pretty flat," said Pietersen, "but there was a bit of softness underneath, and the occasional ball seamed. Their youngster, Southee, bowled well. He put the ball in the right areas, and got his rewards. Fair play to him on debut, he bowled really well and it's encouraging for New Zealand."
If Pietersen seemed underwhelmed by Southee's performance, it was not intended as disparagement. It was merely a reflection of the general air of frustration in the England camp. "We're disappointed, but we've got 240 on the board, so we're not completely out of it," he said. "Someone's going to come off really, really bad when all our boys start firing." That may be so, but unfortunately for England, they assumed that that day would be today. Southee and his cohorts weren't about to tolerate such presumption, and produced a performance of intense discipline that matched their efforts at Hamilton in the first Test.
As the son of a farm boy from Whangarei in the far north of the country, Southee has an earthy quality to his cricket that suited New Zealand's needs perfectly. He's been compared to all sorts of cricketers in his young life so far, including the great Glenn McGrath, and his Man-of-the-Tournament performance in the recent Under-19 World Cup captured the imagination of a nation that has been silently praying for the next Richard Hadlee to come along. "I just take it all on board," shrugged Southee. "A lot of people have said a lot of things and unless you perform you don't go anywhere."
"I came back [from the Under-19s] thinking I'd do my best for Northern Districts and perform for them and anything that happened from there happened," said Southee. "I just wanted to carry on what I've been doing at first-class level and hopefully carry it on to this level. It's all happened pretty quickly and it's probably a good thing because I haven't had much time to think about it."
Even after such an incredible first day, Southee was managing not to get carried away. It was impressive stoicism from one so young, especially given the calibre of his wickets. The England captain, Michael Vaughan; the former England captain, Andrew Strauss - whom he had bowled to in the nets a couple of times during Strauss's spell with Northern Districts, and had clearly gleaned more from the arrangement than his victim; and then finally the kingpin of England's innings, Kevin Pietersen.
"We thought we'd have to work hard so to pick up early wickets in any game is good," said Southee. "To have them three for hardly anything was a good effort. For my first over there were a few nerves, and they were still there afterwards, but to get a wicket under my belt early relieved a bit of pressure, and it sort of went from there. It was good to get Vaughan early and it was good to get Pietersen at the end, he played well to get a hundred. I enjoyed them both."
There is nothing extravagant in Southee's action, attitude or any part of his game. He looks as though he has been built to run and run, like one of his dad's farmyard tractors, but one that's been injected with a V8 engine, like most of the cars that'll be revving around his home venue of Hamilton next month. "There was a little bit in the pitch early on to help us, but we bowled quite well as a unit," he said. England, for whom Kevin Pietersen scored more than 50% of the day's runs, most certainly did not bat likewise.
His performance, in fact, was reminiscent of another young cricketer in whom several of England's hopes are now invested. Broad's unbeaten 42 from 102 balls was a performance worthy of the top three - calm, calculated and respectful of the conditions and the opponents. "He batted brilliantly, he has a nice mature little head on him," said Pietersen. "I was asking him occasionally to try and smile at me, and have some banter, but he was really, really serious, because he was averaging 6 before this knock."
"Let's hope he fulfils his potential, because he's got the character and technique to go far," said Pietersen. He was talking about Broad's career in general, but the next 24 hours will do for now. "He's a real class act with the ball, and he's still learning his trade with the bat. It's never nice for the opposition to know that someone who comes in at No. 8 or 9 can bat like that. [Daniel] Vettori bats at No. 8 for New Zealand and it's hard. You don't think 'we've got six wickets, we can roll through them.'"
Although their wicket-taking was held up in the afternoon, New Zealand didn't once let their thoughts drift in such a manner. With Southee leading the way, they played as they have done all series, with the sort of understated skill that induces errors in opponents. Especially opponents who bat like boy racers only days after coming through their biggest test.