Kevin Pietersen ended the first barren run of his international career with a commanding 129 on the opening day in Napier, although his performance only went to highlight another woeful effort from England's top order in the series-deciding clash. Pietersen hauled the score from the depths of 4 for 3, as Tim Southee made an immediate impression on his Test debut with strikes at either end of the day, but New Zealand have gained a significant advantage on a surface where batsmen should fill their boots.
When Michael Vaughan won the toss, his first of the series, Daniel Vettori's shoulders sank and he didn't even try to pretend he wanted to field with a makeshift attack including two debutants and Jeetan Patel in his third Test. However, when Ian Bell fell to leave England 36 for 4, Vettori might have considered it the best thing to have happened to his team. Southee and Chris Martin operated without the pressure of expectation and later on Vettori was able to go into a holding pattern with himself and Patel ahead of the second new ball.
Southee completed a memorable first day of Test cricket when he removed Pietersen with a full, swinging delivery as the new ball struck. He confirmed all the promise shown during his two Twenty20 outings last month and his Man-of-the-Tournament performance at the Under-19 World Cup where he claimed 17 wickets at 6.64. His late removal of Pietersen sealed New Zealand's day despite Stuart Broad's promised-filled 42.
Throughout the tour England's batsmen have kept saying how they feel on the cusp of making a major contribution, but three had missed the chance within the first seven overs. Bell and Paul Collingwood threw away their innings with poor shots and the resilience of Broad, who combined with Pietersen in an eighth-wicket stand of 61, showed up his senior colleagues.
Pietersen's century came off 163 balls and ended a run of 10 innings without even a fifty, stretching back to the final Test against India at The Oval last August. There has been an even longer wait for a top six batsman to make a first-innings century, the last of which was Collingwood's hundred against West Indies at Chester-le-Street last June. Pietersen is a player who responds best when the challenge is greatest and the early demise of the top order provided him with a real pressure situation.
After playing himself he took an aggressive route against Vettori, twice slog-sweeping him over midwicket - once for six - and continually walking across his crease to pick out gaps in the leg side. Timing slowly returned to his drives and by the time he was passed his century he was dancing down the track and lofting Patel inside-out over extra cover.
The talk before the Test had been of a flat track and a flatter opposition bowling attack. However, after 39 balls the script was being rewritten. Vaughan was too late in responding when Southee pitched one in line and rapped his pad in a half-formed defence. Andrew Strauss, with his career seemingly in the balance after an unfulfilling tour, then drove loosely at a wide delivery outside off that Jamie How snaffled with a tumble at point, and four balls later Alastair Cook was also gone, this time to Martin, who came around the wicket to cramp the left-hander for room, and bowled him via an inside-edge onto the pads. England had a start to rival their 2 for 4 in Johannesburg in 1999-2000.
Bell is another who has flattered to deceive on this trip. After reaching 9 off 57 balls he chose the wrong ball to attack when Grant Elliott served up a bit of width that he succeeded only in miscuing the delivery straight back into the bowler's hands. Elliott, who turned 29 on the eve of the match, had received the perfect belated birthday present of a first Test wicket.
While Pietersen tried to halt the slide Vettori enjoyed another excellent day as captain, switching his options around regularly so the young guns weren't over exposed. Patel was introduced and struck in his second over when Collingwood cut him straight to backward point to end a stand of 89. Last week in Wellington, Tim Ambrose entered with England facing their point of no return on 136 for 5 and was confronted a similar score line here.
There was no repeat of his recovery act as he failed to find any fluency. Patel troubled him outside off stump, beating him twice, and varied his line between over and around the wicket before drawing a thick outside edge which was well held at second slip by Ross Taylor. Patel, a cricketer who makes the most of his talent, sums up what makes New Zealand greater than the sum of their parts and once again they have punched above their weight.