England chip away at New Zealand
England inched closer to a series-levelling victory on a blustery fourth day in Wellington, reducing New Zealand to 242 for 6 at stumps, but they didn't help their cause in spilling at least five chances. Brendon McCullum and Jacob Oram counterattacked with an aggressive sixth-wicket stand of 69 before Ryan Sidebottom removed Oram with the new ball shortly before the close.
Fielding aside, it was a fine performance by England's bowlers - led, of course, by Sidebottom whose stature grows with every match. He ought to have had five wickets to his name by the close, not 3 for 72, but continues to be Michael Vaughan's go-to bowler. Supporting him was Stuart Broad, the coltish young bowler drafted in with James Anderson to replace Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard. Broad improved upon an encouraging (if mousey) display in the first innings to produce fine figures of 2 for 38 from 16 tight, fast overs - though he was officially warned by Rudi Koertzen for stepping onto the pitch, a problem which afflicted him in his debut Test against Sri Lanka last year too.
It was Broad who provided Vaughan with a much-needed breakthrough in the afternoon, removing Stephen Fleming and Matthew Bell who had begun to look confident in their second-wicket stand of 51. Fleming, playing his final innings in front of his home crowd, was nearly caught off the first ball he faced from Sidebottom, but he soon responded with a slashing cut through point off Anderson, who had drawn the short straw in the session and was forced to run in from the City End of the ground into the teeth of a Wellington gale.
Paul Collingwood eventually relieved him in the 17th over, and immediately found Fleming's outside edge with a good-length delivery on off stump. However, Tim Ambrose, standing up to the stumps, was unable to adjust in time and the chance bounced off the tip of his gloves. It was his first blemish of the series.
Bell resembled a man under immense pressure and batted accordingly, nudging his score along with the occasional extravagant heave over point. He was dropped on 27 off Broad when he nibbled one to Collingwood at second slip who shelled the simplest of chances. Broad didn't have to wait too long to hit back as Bell pushed at a good-length delivery outside his off stump, handing Ambrose a simple chance. But the real celebrations began four balls later when he bowled Fleming with a corker which nipped back off a length, clipping his off stump - a disastrous leave by Fleming who departed to a rousing reception by his home crowd faithful. His career average lies tantalisingly short of 40 with just one Test remaining of a distinguished career.
At 70 for 3 England sensed a shift in momentum but Mathew Sinclair and Ross Taylor chose to attack, regardless of the mountain New Zealand were faced with climbing. Sinclair climbed into Anderson with two fierce cuts, while Taylor again infuriated the bowlers' lines by shuffling across to the off side and flicking through midwicket. Both were dropped as tea neared, however. Alastair Cook almost pulled off one of his blinders in the gully diving to his left to dismiss Sinclair, and Taylor should have been held by Kevin Pietersen at mid-off who made a mess of the simplest of chances off Monty Panesar.
Taylor brought up a neat fifty from 65 balls before Sidebottom bent one back into his pads to reduce New Zealand to 173 for 5, but Oram and McCullum - batting at least two feet out of his crease - gave England cause for concern with a combative sixth-wicket stand of 68. That Broad held his nerve late in the day against the bristling aggression of McCullum speaks volumes for his temperament, if not his genes.
If England's fielding reaching its zenith in Hamilton, today was their nadir - summed up in exquisite fashion by Graeme Swann's hopeless wang over the wicketkeeper's head which flew for four. It was ill-disciplined cricket, contrasting starkly with the discipline of the bowling. If they can marry both facets of the game tomorrow morning, all eyes turn to Napier for a fascinating series finale.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo