Andrew Strauss guaranteed himself a place in England's Test side for the foreseeable future with a career-best 173 on the third day in Napier as McLean Park finally produced the sort of run-scoring that had been expected
Andrew Strauss guaranteed himself a place in England's Test side for the foreseeable future with a career-best 173 on the third day in Napier as McLean Park finally produced the volume of run-scoring that had been expected. Ian Bell contributed an expressive hundred of his own as England piled up a huge 501-run lead leaving New Zealand's brittle batting line-up with a two-day battle to save the match and share the series.
This was England's most dominant day of batting since they flayed a hapless West Indies side almost a year ago and the top order began to answer their critics after a winter that, before this match, had produced just two hundreds. Kevin Pietersen's 129 on the opening day was a return to form that everyone believed was around the corner, but the second innings performance will have been more satisfying for everyone involved as it came from the two players with most question marks hanging over them.
A true judgement of Strauss's innings is tough because some of New Zealand's bowling was extremely friendly. The way he played and missed against the second new ball when approaching three figures showed that the technique is still not perfect, but the cry he belted out after driving Chris Martin through the covers to bring up his hundred was proof of the emotion and pressure that came with this knock.
The 226 balls Strauss took to reach his landmark is the most he has needed for any of his 11 hundreds, but that's nothing like the time he has had to wait between three-figure scores. His last century came 16 Tests ago, against Pakistan at Headingley in 2006, and the strong feeling was that it was the minimum required to retain his place for the return series against New Zealand in May. A zipping new ball on an early-season green-top will be the next stage of his rehabilitation, but it has taken a huge amount of fight to even earn the chance.
When he resumed on his overnight 42 it was still a struggle and he had to bide his time early on. One streaky edge flew through gully rather than the covers, but the shot with which he moved to his fifty was a much classier blow - a flowing straight drive that burst through Martin's hands in his follow through. Occasionally there was a glimpse of vintage Strauss including a strong back-foot drive against Martin and two late cuts off Daniel Vettori, and once past his hundred he became more expansive.
Apart from the second new ball there was little threat from the bowling as Martin and Tim Southee looked tired and the pitch didn't offer much for the spinners. Strauss made sure he took full advantage, passing his previous highest score of 147 against South Africa in Johannesburg in 2004-05 and breaking the 150-mark off 300 balls. Strauss began the day knowing an early dismissal could have made this his last Test innings for some time, but instead walked off having batted throughout and four runs away from his first-class best.
Unlike Strauss, who took a long time to find his groove, Bell was into his stride as soon as he replaced Pietersen, who fell to an outstanding slip catch by Ross Taylor. Bell's innings was precisely what England were crying out for in the situation, where the lead was already healthy, and was the commanding performance he needed to produce to silence his doubters. His post-lunch acceleration with Strauss, which brought 135 runs in the afternoon, was perfectly timed as runs started to flow at four an over. He flicked Patel over midwicket for six and tucked into the gentle offerings of Grant Elliott as Vettori tried to race through to the new ball.
Bell's cover-driving was the highlight of his innings and a scorching shot carried him into the 90s. He brought up his hundred from a brisk 150 deliveries, his first since the first Test against West Indies at Lord's last May, and the 187-run stand was the best by England since Bell and Matt Prior added 190 in that same Test. People will point out that the going was easy, but England have been criticised for not cashing in before so this was a step in the right direction.
Bell eventually fell to the persevering Vettori, the only successful bowler, as he lofted a catch to mid-off, but Paul Collingwood and Tim Ambrose produced breezy efforts to keep Strauss company during the final session. New Zealand had long since given up trying to bowl England out, resigning themselves to trying to save the match. On recent evidence they are unlikely to be up to the challenge.