Had they been playing, it's hard to imagine what Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison would have made of England's shambolic impression of a fielding unit today. Except on a few occasions when Australia have had them under the cosh, England have not gone to pieces in such a comprehensive manner for many a long year - and yet incredibly their lapses are unlikely to cost them the game. Thanks to Ryan Sidebottom's late, late intercession with the new ball, the dangerous Jacob Oram has gone, and England are one big wicket away from breaking through to the tail.
But Harmy and Hoggy were not playing, and so clumps of turf were not kicked out of the pitch with every spill, nor were fielders bawled out for their ineptitude - except by Sidebottom, who justifiably informed his mate, Graeme Swann, that he was a "pillock" for winging four overthrows over the keeper's head. Instead, England's momentum was maintained by a fresh-faced attack, led this time by the youngster, Stuart Broad, who knows that whatever he endures in the Test career that awaits him, it's unlikely to match the ordeal of his debut.

There are undoubted advantages of a baptism of fire, and that is exactly what Broad was subjected to when he stepped into the breach in Colombo in December. The SSC wicket was so lifeless that even Muttiah Muralitharan despaired of it, and England were left to fry for 13 hours in the merciless Sri Lankan sun as Mahela Jayawardene cashed in to the tune of 195. Broad bowled with skill and stamina to take 1 for 95 in 36 overs, but the memories of that featherbed allow him to treat days such as this with impressive equanimity.

"Colombo was hard work but it was a good experience," he recalled. "I don't think it'll get much harder than that 190-odd overs in the field in my first Test. This is more of an English-type wicket - it's seamed all the way through and it gives some nice bounce for a bowler of my height. I've enjoyed bowling on it, but this is very early in my Test career, so I'm just taking one game at a time."

"We've done very well so far, and we're delighted with our position," added Broad. "The wicket's suited us so far. It's played into our hands and we've come out fighting. We've bowled nicely, batted nicely, and fielded well - up until today. The lads were very focused, but it was just human error. We took some blinders up at Hamilton, but we put a few down here and that's just the way cricket goes sometimes."

To thrive as a Test bowler you have to be willing to keep bending your back even in adversity, but none of England's bowlers expected that adversity to be self-inflicted. Ross Taylor, the recipient of the easiest of the reprieves, couldn't believe his luck when, on 30, Kevin Pietersen let him off the hook with an incredible drop at mid-off. "I was already walking off, but lucky for me it was my day and I got away with it," said Taylor. "I do remember that he did drop a couple in the Ashes series, but having said that, we also dropped a few chances as well."

Broad, however, was unfazed by the chaos going on around him - his fresh attitude to the job was precisely what Michael Vaughan had been looking for when he and Anderson received their dramatic promotions on the eve of the game. "I've been bowling nicely in the nets, and my philosophy when I'm not playing is to put the pressure on the bowlers who are playing," said Broad. "That keeps the standard high and means that the bowlers who are playing have to be on top form to stay in the side. It's a good way to improve the squad in general, and I'm delighted to have got the nod."

He was even afforded senior-bowler status today, and made the most of it. While the first-innings hero, Anderson, toiled uphill and into the flag-flapping breeze that buffeted the Basin Reserve all morning, Broad was allowed the wind on his back and barrelled down the ground with malice aforethought. "Most of the wickets fell from [the top] end, it was quite a strong breeze," he said. "It was like that on the training day as well, so all the bowlers practised bowling with it and into it. Full credit to the lads who bowled into it today, because it was tough out there. They did a great holding job."

His big moment came in the ninth over of his spell, when Matthew Bell and Stephen Fleming both fell in the space of five deliveries. "It was quite an important time for the wickets as well," said Broad. "We knew we had to come out hard after lunch, and to get Fleming and Bell in quick succession was very pleasing. We're pleased with the position we're in, needing four wickets to win a Test match on the last day. With this new ball it's very important we strike early and it would be lovely to get a win in my second Test match."

That prospect looked to be in a tiny bit of jeopardy until the penultimate ball of the day. Without Hoggard in the attack, this side is barely recognisable from the team that Nathan Astle took (briefly but spectacularly) to the cleaners at Christchurch six years ago, but while Jacob Oram and Brendon McCullum were manoeuvring away in their 69-run sixth-wicket stand, the prospect of some final-day fireworks was very much on the cards.

But then Oram fell to the new ball, and the odds changed dramatically. New Zealand may have felt aggrieved to still be batting, having already gone off once for bad light, but Taylor hid it well, saying that such decisions were the umpires' call. "It was disappointing to lose that wicket, because it would have been nice to go into tomorrow only being five down," he said. "But tomorrow morning will be crucial with the new ball. If we can see through the new ball for the first hour without losing a wicket, our chances of winning improve immensely."

"We have put pressure on Daniel and Brendon to get us a big hundred to win us the game," said Taylor. "Being positive, we are in the game, we need less than 200 on the last day with four wickets in hand. Yes, it's going to be a struggle, but we just have to be positive and get through that period with the new ball and it will give us the best chance of winning."

Had England taken all - or even some - of the chances that they were offered, the game could have been over long before the close. But the perseverance of England's attack was admirable regardless of the fallibility of their fielding. Broad and Sidebottom were the pick, but Anderson's role was not to be under-estimated - especially after he picked up a troubling ankle injury while playing football at the close of the third day.

"He was just trying to be a bit fancy and trod on the ball, but he was never a major doubt," said Broad. "I'm sure he'll be dying to take that new ball tomorrow, and I'm sure he'll be flying up that hill into the wind."