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March 8, 2008
"Who Dares Wins" is the motto of the SAS, and it's not a tag they'd have settled upon lightly. As Stephen Fleming was at pains to point out at the close of an epic fourth day's play, there's only one side that has dared to take this game by the scruff of the neck, and it's not the side that claimed six wickets for 20 in 40 minutes of mayhem. An incredible cricket match has emerged after three days of drudgery, and now the question remains: who dares take the final step?
If England emerge victorious, it will be one of the most incredible heists of modern times. There's no way they can pretend that this match has gone according to some masterplan, in the manner of, say, their twilight victory in Karachi in 2000-01, which is possibly the only template for such an incredible change of tempo. On that tour, Nasser Hussain's finest hour, England's stated aim was to cling on at all costs, and their opportunity for victory arose when Pakistan panicked inexplicably on the final afternoon.
New Zealand's collapse today wasn't the product of panic, it was more of a muffed attempt to take flight. With a handy lead of 122, and a rare sniff of the ascendancy, they fiddled with their batting order and figured that, whatever they ended up with, it would be good enough for a shot at victory. "We were hesitant in South Africa," said Fleming of their most recent tour, in November, which resulted in a pair of hefty drubbings. "We made a point of being positive, and the players who have been picked have a positive nature about them, that's just the way we need to play."
It just so happened that the two most explosive men in their line-up, Brendon McCullum and Jacob Oram, scored no runs between them and lasted three balls in total, but Fleming was as unfazed as a man who'd just dumped his life savings on red. "We were the only team to gamble," he said. "We were the only team to be positive enough to do it to create this opportunity." He wasn't bluffing. If England had had their way, they would still have been batting by tea-time and beyond, such was the lack of ambition in their batting.
The situation as it stands is wonderful. New Zealand's lead is a useful 269, but not an impregnable one. But in many ways, the flimsier the target, the better. England's collective ego has been dented by successive series defeats, and they have not won an overseas success since March 2006. If they snatch at the opportunity, especially after imagining so many demons in the pitch during their first innings, New Zealand will be ready to capitalise.
|If England are to win, then a huge amount of responsibility rests on the shoulders of their captain, Michael Vaughan. Positive captaincy was once his watchword, but ever since his return to the side he's seemed unsure about the men at his disposal and the pace he's wanted to set|
To that end, Fleming was almost goading his opponents to have a go. "They have been out of the game for four days," he said. "To be presented an opportunity and not take it would be staggering. While it was spectacular to lose the wickets, and you'd love to be in a position where you can dictate a little bit more, if you look at the overall picture of the game this is our best chance of winning. It has breathed some life into a game that was meandering."
If England are to win, then a huge amount of responsibility rests on the shoulders of their captain, Michael Vaughan. Positive captaincy was once his watchword, not least against New Zealand upon whom he inflicted a 3-0 whitewash in the 2004 series, but ever since his return to the side, he's seemed unsure about the men at his disposal and the pace he's wanted to set. It's hard to imagine his former self settling for a run-rate of barely two an over - where would England have been in the 2005 Ashes with that sort of attitude? He has a duty to lead from the front, and back his men to follow suit.
But will the pitch hold up for the chase? Fleming was very happy to sow a seed or two of doubt. "It has deteriorated," he said. "There is a small chance where you can attack at the top [of the innings], but as soon as you try to score, or there is scoreboard pressure, then it seems the time you lose wickets. I felt I had to go aerial and that produces risk, which is why we are taking a lot of confidence into the game tomorrow. If England want to win they need to score at three runs an over, and when they tried to do that in the first innings it brought us into play."
Whatever follows, it promises to be an outstanding finale, reminiscent of England Tests of the pre-2005 era, when the fourth day - for whatever reason - happened to be England's day of galvanisation and momentum-seizing. That's not quite what we've witnessed here. For all the excitement about Ryan Sidebottom's richly merited hat-trick, and the outstanding quality of their catching, England have drifted listlessly into a position to strike, rather than marched there with banners and flags flying. Have their batsmen got the bottle to seize the day? It's not the impression they have given so far in this game.
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