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Analysis

With backs against the wall, batters provide New Zealand with an outside shot

Despite being blitzed for the most part of the Test, hosts ended day three in a position to make England worry

Kane Williamson dug in before the close, New Zealand vs England, 2nd Test, Wellington, 3rd day, February 26, 2023

Kane Williamson dug in before the close of play on day three  •  Getty Images

There's an argument to say Sunday was New Zealand's best day of the series.
Tom Latham and Devon Conway scored fine half-centuries, registering New Zealand's highest partnership of the series, beating the previous best set a few hours earlier. They frustrated England no end, almost mockingly chipping away at a bumper lead steadily, at odds with the manner it was accrued. Context, though, is important.
Latham and Conway's stand of 149 in 320 balls was coming in a follow-on innings, the first England had imposed on their opponents since August 2020. New Zealand trailed initially by 226, and it was only that much because of skipper Tim Southee's blitz of 73 from 49 deliveries. He forged a partnership of 98 with Tom Blundell, which at the time was the team's highest of the series.
What frustration England had was relative. An entire day in the field was taxing work, particularly for a three-prong seam attack who were sore after the intensity of last week's victory in the first Test in Mount Maunganui. For a team that likes to win in a hurry, the 94.2 overs in the dirt on the third day would have grated. Nevertheless, the spinners showed up - Jack Leach with two, Joe Root with one - to do their bit. Leach's dismissal of Will Young, pitching around middle stump, taking the top of off, showed signs the pitch is taking turn more than it usually does at the Basin Reserve in Wellington.
Ultimately, the only reason the game is at this stage going into day four is because of the weather. A scheduled 50 overs have been lost, split evenly across days one and two. The latter might have seen New Zealand's first innings end earlier and cheaper, the follow-on still instigated to expose cracks in a frail batting line-up from Saturday evening into Sunday morning.
Ben Stokes arrived at the ground on Sunday morning with a view to enforcing no matter what, which is what he relayed to his charges before heading out there. Across the corridor of the player's pavilion, things were far less certain.
Fast forward to the end of the day and things are a little clearer. A little more hopeful. England have a second go to come - but the arrears are just 24, Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls set and there is a quiet sense New Zealand could be onto something here.
Learning from mistakes has been key. As much as batting coach Luke Ronchi rallied against the idea England's attacking mantra seeping into the subconscious of their opponents was not the issue with the batting missteps on day two, it was hard not to think otherwise. Latham and Nicholls' reverse sweeps, Williamson's uncharacteristic looseness out wide. Issues were trying to be forced when that's not really the Kiwi way.
It was under Brendon McCullum's leadership, of course, and there's something neat about him being here for this. You wonder if he is secretly relishing the prospect of a slobberknocker of a finish, as much for another test of the mettle of those now under his care as simply putting on a show.
That McCullum is sat in the "other" balcony in "their" stash is something of a sore point for locals. They get it, no doubt, but the transformation of the England team has made them yearn for more excitement from theirs.
"Absolutely. Whether it's 200, 250 - you just never know. We've seen the wicket, it's still doing enough with the old ball and the new ball, and there's plenty of turn there."
Latham on whether New Zealand had a chance to force a win
They might still get it in the next couple of days, but it's worth noting the path to that point began with the kind of grind that led to the 2019 World Test Championship win.
"The character of this group, we stand up when things aren't going so well," said Latham, who was a surprise runner-up in the leadership race after Williamson stepped down. His role is still as a big personality in the dressing room, not least on ability alone. He became the seventh New Zealand batter to pass 5,000 Test runs, and primarily did that by packing away most of his shots.
"We probably didn't quite do that quick enough the other day," he said of a lack of leaving in the first innings. In turn, England's bowlers "came to" the New Zealand batters, trying to target the stumps which allowed enough deliveries to drive or pop into gaps to keep the scoreboard ticking over steadily. Scoring more or less stopped for the second noteworthy partnership between Williamson and Nicholls which was more about the 128 balls than the runs (35) for the fourth wicket.
They made it to the new ball, then survived three overs of it. They will rest knowing they have to go again from scratch in the morning, but also aware the overs taken out of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson today will count against them tomorrow. And having seen Stokes bowl two poor overs in which he was warned twice and then no-balled for overdoing bouncers, there is reason to believe they can begin to dictate a little more once the AM movement has subsided.
Even Latham, a pragmatist at heart, admitted to a degree of excitement heading into Monday. The prospect of a series-squaring result and first win under Southee is not something New Zealand are shying away from.
"Absolutely," was Latham's immediate response to the prospect becoming only the fourth side to win after following on. "You've always got to look at [different] ways to win a Test match. We certainly know there is a lot of work to do before that point.
"Whether it's 200, 250 - you just never know. We've seen the wicket, it's still doing enough with the old ball and the new ball, and there's plenty of turn there."
Just as the weather delayed the progress of this game, it may also curtail the end, to a point. England fell victim to the unpredictable Wellington rains in 2013, similarly asking New Zealand to bat again in the third innings. But respective desire and need for a result other than a draw could win out.
After getting pasted in the first Test and blitzed for the best part of three days here, New Zealand are somehow still in a position to make England worry. Granted there is still a lot to be done, and even then Stokes and McCullum run a worry-free dressing room that will back themselves to knock off any total, no matter how big.
But that New Zealand are an outside shot is in its own way something to savour. This two-match series could be set for a thrilling finale and, moreover, a smash-and-grab that could give a much-needed push to a transitional era for the hosts.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo