New Zealand begin to believe
For 85 overs of the second day at Hamilton, the first Test between England and New Zealand was dying a slow death. The application shown by Ross Taylor and Daniel Vettori during their 148-run stand was admirable but foreboding. England's bowlers found no swing, seam or spin to help them on their way, and when their own batsmen replied in kind with an 84-run opening stand, the worst sort of stalemate was already being envisaged.
But then, Alastair Cook went and played a pull shot that had "mug" tattooed all over it, and suddenly there was life in the match once again. Two late wickets were reward for New Zealand's application - particularly that of Chris Martin whose wiry frame belied an extra yard of zip that none of England's bowlers could replicate (least of all Steve Harmison). But perhaps more significantly, the breakthroughs were a reminder of the frailties of England's batting line-up.
Daniel Vettori made a point of bigging up England's top six on the eve of the series, remarking how they all averaged in excess of 40. What he omitted to mention is that they all too frequently reach that score then give their wickets away. In Sri Lanka before Christmas, England were overwhelmed by three totemic innings - 152 from Kumar Sangakkara at Kandy, and then 197 and 213 not out from Mahela Jayawardene at Colombo and Galle respectively. In reply they mustered a solitary hundred in six attempts, and that came from Cook at the last gasp, when the series was already irretrievable.
Taylor's hugely mature 120 wasn't quite in the class of those three knocks, but it was a performance of great resolve and substance, the like of which England aren't too keen to replicate these days. As a squad they have mislaid the art of the meaningful innings - and they can't even manage it in one-day cricket, where their last centurion was Owais Shah at The Oval against India last summer, 11 matches ago.
Andrew Strauss used to score centuries for fun, with 10 in his first 30 Tests, but he was dropped after failing to reach three figures in 25 subsequent innings. Now he's back in the mix, thanks entirely to the shortcomings of others, and he's out in the middle already - at least a session sooner than he had envisaged. There's no time like the present for ending his run-drought either. Ian Bell is incapacitated, Tim Ambrose is on debut, and Ryan Sidebottom - for all his merits - is hardly fit to lace Vettori's boots at No. 8.
New Zealand are flushed with unexpected confidence after the success of their batsmen this morning, and they sense that England are beatable. "We think we can win the game," said Taylor. "If they were none-down or one-down it would be a pretty even game, but to have them two-down when it is starting to slow up and take a bit of turn, I'm sure the first session tomorrow will be big. If we can put some pressure on England early on then you never know."
Pressure was what England's bowlers singularly failed to apply after resuming on 282 for 6. "We're disappointed that we didn't bowl as well as we did yesterday," said Ryan Sidebottom, who with 4 for 90 was England's stand-out bowler and, for once, had the figures to prove it. "We were fired up to get the four wickets and we were stupidly searching for wickets this morning, rather than doing what we did yesterday. We were trying to bowl too quick instead of plugging away, and they scored 100 more than we expected."
|Apart from watching him on TV, I haven't had a lot to do with him [Steve Harmison] but he can bowl at 130kph as much as he wants, because it makes it easier for me. He'd be a hell of a bowler to face if he was bowling at 145-150kph, especially on a bouncy deck Ross Taylor gives a damning assessment of Steve Harmison|
"Bowling too quick." That may have been true of the two specialist swing bowlers in the line-up, but oh for such an accolade to be uttered in Harmison's direction. Taylor could hardly believe his luck when reputation finally met with reality, and he faced up for the first time to the bowler who was once the most fearsome in the world. "Apart from watching him on TV, I haven't had a lot to do with him," said Taylor, "but he can bowl at 130kph as much as he wants, because it makes it easier for me. He'd be a hell of a bowler to face if he was bowling at 145-150kph, especially on a bouncy deck."
It was a pretty damning yet utterly honest assessment from a man in only his third Test match. Taylor came to the crease with a reputation for big hitting and a career-best score of 17, and yet he bedded in to bat for more than five hours. "I got off to a bit of shaky start in my first four digs in Test cricket, so it was good to silence a few people who doubted me and whether I was good enough to play at this level," he said. "It was definitely the most circumspect I've ever batted."
England are capable of emulating such feats. Strauss was back to his compact self during the warm-up in Dunedin, while Kevin Pietersen is bristling for a big one after failing to reach even fifty in Sri Lanka. But to judge by the verve and aggression showed by Martin and Mills with the new ball, and the steep bounce and not-insignificant turn extracted by the spinners, Vettori and Jeetan Patel, New Zealand's bowlers are more up for the challenge than their English counterparts proved to be.
England were, after all, bundled out for 131 in their warm-up at Dunedin. "That showed us that England can be beaten," said Taylor. "It was only a three-day game and it did do a lot on the first morning of that game, but it gave the players in that match a bit more belief they could foot it with England. It showed we are still in the game."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo