Jamie How produced the innings of his life to guide New Zealand to within a single blow of victory in the fourth ODI at Napier, but in the end his 139 from 116 balls was trumped by six balls of nerveless discipline from England's rawest recruit, Luke Wright. His solitary over of the innings - his third in four international matches to date - resulted in six thrifty runs and the game's pivotal dismissal, as England snatched an incredible tie from the jaws of defeat to carry the five-match series into a decider at Christchurch on Saturday.
In any ordinary match, How's masterclass would have won the contest with a yawning chasm to spare. He batted throughout with a Test-class composure, and yet moved to his hundred from a mere 86 balls, cashing in on Napier's short square boundaries with a series of shredding drives and emphatic pulls. England's own efforts with the bat had been impressive - Phil Mustard made a career-best 83 from 74 balls as he added 158 for the first wicket with Alastair Cook, and Paul Collingwood latched onto six leg-side sixes in an England-record 24-ball fifty - but all the while that How was easing New Zealand towards their target, their efforts paled to insignificance.
With seven overs remaining, New Zealand needed a fraction more than a run a ball with seven wickets still standing. It was looking like a done deal - not least because the same team, 12 months previously, had twice chased 340-plus scores to beat the mighty Australians. From Jesse Ryder's pugnacious opening salvo of 39 from 32 balls, via Brendon McCullum's gutsy 58 from 65 and a run-a-ball 48 from Ross Taylor, New Zealand had demonstrated the firepower and the willpower to win. James Anderson bowled a succession of long-hops to concede 61 runs from his first six overs, and England's lack of a specialist fifth bowler was causing an over-reliance on the ineffectual offspin of Owais Shah.
But then, suddenly, something clicked within the England mindset. Scott Styris, on 20 from 17 balls, lashed their best bowler, Ryan Sidebottom, down Anderson's throat at long-on, and one over later, the disastrously out-of-form Peter Fulton ran himself out for a four-ball duck as he chipped and charged to a pumped-up Kevin Pietersen at mid-on. The dangerous Jacob Oram punctured the off-side ring with a fierce drive in the next over, from Stuart Broad, but then picked out Pietersen at short cover with his next shot. Three prime wickets had fallen in consecutive overs, and with 25 needed from 24 balls, a sense of vertigo began to set in for the New Zealanders.
Back came Anderson for his final two-over burst. Suddenly his length was full and menacing, and backed up with a hint of reverse-swing, he conceded a meagre two runs in his ninth over to lift the requirement to a daunting 23 from 18. Though Daniel Vettori connected with a scythe over mid-on, the equation was still fractionally in England's favour when Wright was thrown the ball on a whim by his captain. There was no planning involved in the hunch - England in their desperation had been forced to bowl out their big guns early, but Wright was confident after producing an effective innings of 24 from 13 balls, and it showed.
He did nothing more than bowl six consecutive wicket-to-wicket deliveries, but with no room to swing their arms, New Zealand's batsmen were forced to take on the ground fielders. Pietersen missed by inches from midwicket with How stranded, but one ball later Anderson - who was superb in the field - did not. How had to turn back after Vettori's drive went straight to the man, and he carried on walking as his stumps were pinged down from ten yards.
And so it all came down to the very last ball. Vettori was on strike, although he arguably should not have been there at all, after the third umpire failed to notice that his bat had been in the air during an earlier run-out referral. Wright kept it full and straight once again, and a cramped shot squirted out to point. A direct hit would have given the match to England, but the shy slipped past the stumps and so the spoils were shared. As he left the field, Collingwood admitted he didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but there's little doubt that, after the devastation at Hamilton, England would happily have accepted a win and a tie in their next two games.
England did, however, have their eyes on a bigger prize at the start of today's game, and by the interval, Vettori was doubtless pondering the wisdom of bowling first. England's sizeable total might have been very different had McCullum behind the stumps held onto the simplest of edges off Chris Martin, when Cook had made just 2 from 14 balls. The opportunity, however, went begging, and Cook joined Mustard in England's biggest stand of the series.
The main source of England's mayhem was Mustard, who allied power with patience and even some delicate touch play in his most convincing innings to date. It was the brutality of his cutting and square driving that really caught the eye, and set the tone for the day. Vettori was running out of options as the stand entered the 27th over of the innings, so he tossed the ball to the innocuous seamer, Ryder. But, in a remarkable maiden ODI over, he removed both men in quick succession - Mustard to a flat smack to wide long-on, and Cook to a perfect wicket-to-wicket seamer that nipped through bat and pad to rattle middle stump. Perhaps it was the memory of that intercession that prompted Collingwood's last-ditch gamble. Either way, part-time medium-pacers are the toast of Napier tonight.