Prior helps England hold on for heart-stopping draw
It may not have been pretty, it may not have been assured and it may have owed rather more to fortune than they would have liked, but England's last pair somehow clung on to seal a draw on the final day of the Test series against New Zealand in Auckland
England 204 (Prior 73, Boult 6-68) and 315 for 9 (Prior 110*, Bell 75, Williamson 4-44) drew with New Zealand 443 (Fulton 136, Williamson 91, Finn 6-125) and 241 for 6 dec (Fulton 110, McCullum 67*) Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
It may not have been pretty, it may not have been assured and it may have owed rather more to fortune than they would have liked, but England's last pair somehow clung on to seal a draw on the final day of the Test series against New Zealand in Auckland. In a thrilling advert for virtues of Test cricket, Matt Prior and Monty Panesar played out the final 19 balls of the game to frustrate a deserving New Zealand.
There were several occasions on a wonderfully absorbing final day when it appeared New Zealand's victory was inevitable. When England lost Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow either side of lunch and when they lost Ian Bell the over before tea, it seemed New Zealand were on the brink of just their second home series victory over England - the first was in 1983-84 - and their first Test series victory over any top eight opposition since they defeated West Indies in 2006.
But for all England's faults - and there have been times in this series when they have looked a very modest outfit - they possess an admirable resilience. They have been outplayed for long tracts of this campaign but remain, as Leonard Cohen put it, as stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay. Surviving for 143 overs might be considered not only a Dunkirk moment for England cricket, but as admirable in its own way as coming from behind to defeat India in India.
There were several heroes for England. Stuart Broad, who tempered his attacking instincts so completely that it took him 62 deliveries to get off the mark, produced his longest Test innings since the Lord's Test against India in July 2011, while Ian Bell resisted for just short of six hours in seeing England to the brink of the tea interval. But most of all there was Matt Prior who may have produced the definitive innings of his career to thwart an excellent New Zealand
seam attack that that threw everything they had at him on a pitch that remained true for batting to the end.
Prior's innings was, in many ways, odd. While his colleagues clung to the crease with the desperation of a climber sliding down a rockface, Prior played with a freedom that seemed to belie the match situation. Despite the fact that runs were irrelevant throughout the last day, he
rarely declined an opportunity to punish the loose delivery and reached his century - his seventh in Tests - from only 148 deliveries with his 18th four. The logic was simple: he reasoned it was better to play his natural, positive game than attempt something unfamiliar. His innings may be remembered alongside Mike Atherton's unbeaten 185 in Johannesburg, in 1995, and Dennis Amiss' 262 against West Indies in Kingston, in 1973-74, as one of England's greatest match-saving contributions.
But he, and England, enjoyed much fortune and many nervous moments on the road to safety. Most pertinently, Prior somehow saw the bails remain unmoved after the ball thumped into the stumps when he had scored 28. Struggling to deal with a brute of a bouncer from the wholehearted Neil Wagner, Prior saw the ball bounce, via the bat handle and his neck, onto the stumps but fail to dislodge a bail.
Prior was also adjudged leg before to Tim Southee by umpire Rod Tucker when he had 16 - the Decision Review System showed a thick inside edge onto the pads - and on 20 he survived a loose top-edged pull off the same bowler. Neil Wagner, running back from midwicket, was unable to cling on to a desperately tough chance.
Perhaps New Zealand may rue some missed chances, too. Both Bell and Jonny Bairstow were dropped in the over before lunch as Trent Boult, swinging the new ball back into the right-hander, brought tentative edges to the slip cordon from deliveries angled across the batsmen.
Bell, feeling for one angled across him that he could have left, was grateful to see Dean Brownlie, at fourth slip, put down a relatively straightforward chance, before, two balls later, Bairstow pushed hard at one some way from him and was fortunate to see Kane Williamson, in the gully, put down a sharp chance.
Batting had appeared relatively straightforward for the first 100 minutes or so of the day. With no hope of scoring the further 391 runs they required to win the game when play resumed in the morning, Bell and Joe Root instead concentrated on occupation of the crease. The pair batted without much trouble for 28 overs, settling in as New Zealand used the seamers sparingly ahead of the second new ball.
But everything changed once it was taken. New Zealand claimed the second new ball the moment it was available and, with its first delivery, Boult produced a beauty that swung back and struck a half forward Root on the pad in front of the stumps. Root and Bell discussed the worth of utilising a review under the Decision Review System, but decided, quite rightly, that the on-field umpire had made no mistake.
Bairstow, with only two first-class innings behind him since August, was fortunate to survive his second delivery. Boult, with an inswinging yorker, appeared to strike Bairstow on the boot before it hit the bat in front of the stumps, but New Zealand did not appeal. Replays suggested that if they had, Bairstow would have been in some trouble.
But he did not last long after lunch. Southee, bowling from wide of the crease, managed to make one bounce and straighten from just back of a good length to take Bairstow's edge on its way to slip.
Prior and Bell took England to the brink of tea. Bell, in particular, looked admirably solid and drew the sting out of the attack when they were armed with the new ball but, the over before the interval, he was drawn into feeling for one outside off stump from the wonderfully persistent Wagner and edged to third slip.
If New Zealand's seamers were impressive, their frontline spinner was not. Bruce Martin, perhaps feeling the pressure of expectation, struggled with his length and rarely found the turn that might have been anticipated. For much of the day he was out-bowled by the part-time offspinner, Kane Williamson.
With only four overs to go and England seemingly safe, McCullum surprisingly brought Williamson back into the attack, perhaps with an eye to the trio of left-handers at the bottom of the order. It proved a masterstroke: Broad's worthy defiance was ended when he prodded half forward and edged to slip before, two balls later, James Anderson fell in the same manner.
While Panesar endured some nervous moments - he was perilously close to playing-on first ball and, comically, almost ran himself out when diving well short of his ground in attempting a sharp single to get off strike - Prior proved a calming influence, took control and saw his side to safety.
A draw is, in many ways, a harsh reflection of New Zealand's superiority in two of the three matches in the series. Their bowlers found swing, seam and spin that England's did not and their batsmen displayed a balance between discipline and aggression that England could never manage. While McCullum was inventive and positive as captain, Alastair Cook was increasingly reactive and passive. Few would deny that New Zealand looked the better side.
Perhaps McCullum should have declared earlier. But New Zealand can take heart from this performance. Their pursuit of victory may have been frustrated, but they showed themselves at least the equal of the No. 2 rated Test team and showed that, under McCullum's leadership, they have the materials to rise in the rankings in the months and years ahead.