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March 15, 2008
England maintained the high ground of the second Test in Wellington, extending their lead to 421 at stumps on the third day. As the shadows lengthened, New Zealand's fielding began to show signs of cracking and with two days to do, England can begin to sniff a series-levelling victory.
For all England's solidity, it was a curiously diffident performance from their batsmen. Only Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood reached fifty (and subdued ones at that), and there was a lack of urgency in their strokeplay - all the more surprising given the sublime batting conditions under blue skies with an un-Wellingtonian gentle breeze. Such are the constraints a nervous team places upon itself, especially one already 0-1 down. Nevertheless, they are firmly in the driving seat.
Cook had led the way for England in the morning, building confidently but cautiously in perfect batting conditions after the early loss of Michael Vaughan. He rarely looked in complete control but was occasionally troubled by the movement which Jacob Oram continued to extract on what continued to be a flat pitch. Cook did enjoy one moment of good fortune when, on 5, he edged Kyle Mills towards first slip, only for Brendon McCullum to dive across and tip the chance out of Stephen Fleming's path. But he soon settled and even registered an unexpected landmark with his first six in international cricket.
It wasn't the most convincing shot of Cook's innings, however. Hurried by a bouncer from Chris Martin, Cook swung into a pull shot only for the ball to scoot off a top-edge and away over third man. There was an interminable delay as the third umpire decided whether it had carried over the rope or not, but in the end his wait for a maximum was over, more than two years and 2000 Test runs after his debut innings.
He brought up his fifty from 104 balls and registered hundred stand with Andrew Strauss as England built steadily. Cook is doubtless a fine player, but his tendency to flirt outside the off stump continues to haunt him; a wafty poke at the persistent Mills cost him on 60 - excellently caught by Fleming, low at first slip.
Strauss's position in the side is under intense scrutiny but he showed fleeting signs of the form which made his name one of the first on the team-sheet three years ago, cutting Daniel Vettori for a fierce four and pulling Oram through midwicket for a pleasing brace of boundaries. He was lucky not to be given out shouldering arms on 41 - evidence of his rustiness occasionally jutting through - but Oram got his man in the next over when he again shuffled across and was trapped in front. His slow trudge off resembled a man under huge pressure.
As ever, Kevin Pietersen's wicket was the most sought after - especially since he was beginning to threaten the sort of arrogant innings which England have so missed. He got moving with his trademark flick through midwicket off Oram, whose metronomic line had begun to waver, before dismissively on-driving him with immense power back down the ground. With England's lead already in excess of 300, these were danger times for New Zealand.
However, they received a stroke of luck 30 minutes before tea when Ian Bell hammered one back to Martin, who fingered it onto the non-striker's stumps to leave Pietersen comfortably short. Ian Bell rarely dominated, occasionally pulling the fast bowlers through midwicket, but - quite infuriatingly - he lacked that aggressive intent. Notwithstanding, his innings was typically elegant and littered with delightful cover drives of poise, but he threw away another golden chance for a defining contribution with a wasteful welly to point for 41.
Collingwood, like Bell, struggled to time the ball as well as he might and should have been caught 15 minutes before tea. He would have been caught, rather, had anyone other than Mark Gillespie - who dropped Bell in England's first innings - circled it at long-off. That he parried it over for four rather summed up New Zealand's Jekyll-and-Hyde performance in the field. Collingwood ground on before blitzing Mills for 12 in one over, bringing up another fifty from 107 balls.
The tireless Martin was finally rewarded when Stuart Broad edged one through to McCullum shortly before the close, and Ryan Sidebottom was bounced out by a rare brute from Gillespie as England's tail began to fold. But with New Zealand now needing to break all the run-chase records, the late clatter of wickets was just what the game needed.