Match Analysis

'It's a stupid game that we play' - Jack Leach reflects on moment of Black Cap comedy

Latest moment of misfortune epitomised tour in which NZ have struggled to get a break

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
"It's out! It's out!" Ben Stokes shouted at a dumbfounded Jack Leach, giddy with bemused excitement. Henry Nicholls was left to drag himself off after a bizarre, surreal dismissal, one which seemed to sum New Zealand's tour of England up. It is meant to be black cats, not Black Caps, that bring bad luck.
Nicholls' innings had been a grind, one in which he had made only 19 runs in over two hours as tea approached. He had put on 40 at less than two an over with Daryl Mitchell, leaving and defending with caution and surviving several plays-and-misses outside his off stump. It had not been pretty, but after winning the toss and stumbling to 83 for 4, New Zealand did not care about aesthetics.
With five balls left before tea, Leach overpitched and Nicholls shimmied to turn the ball into a half-volley, driving slightly uppishly down the ground. Mitchell, at the non-striker's end, flinched and tried to pull his bat away from the line of the ball, but somehow managed to deflect it straight to Alex Lees at mid-off.
Leach was mystified, looking around at his celebrating team-mates with his arms out in confusion. Nicholls stood dumbfounded before slinking off, consoling himself only with the knowledge that he will soon feature on YouTube in a video titled: "O M G ..... How can this happen in cricket??? MOST UNLUCKY DISMISSAL OF ALL TIME".
"It's just one of those unfortunate things," Luke Ronchi, New Zealand's batting coach, said. "Daryl just happened to middle it again like he's been doing the whole time." As Ronchi left the room, his old Somerset team-mate Leach repeated another of his lines back to him: "I like those little quirks," he said with a grin.
"I didn't even know if that was allowed," Leach added. "I don't actually like the dismissal but I felt like I bowled pretty well to Nicholls leading up to that… you just have to take it. It's a silly game, isn't it? That's what it made me think: it's a stupid game that we play."
New Zealand are due a slice of luck when it comes to deflections off stray bats working against them; at least Trent Boult could see the funny side at Lord's when Stokes nearly managed, completely involuntarily, to recreate that moment from the 2019 World Cup final.
"Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die," the comedian and film-maker Mel Brooks once said, and England couldn't help but laugh. This was a moment of black comedy for New Zealand - Black Cap comedy, if you will - and one which felt grimly familiar on a tour that has lurched from one misfortune to another.
A year ago to the day, New Zealand were celebrating at the Ageas Bowl after Ross Taylor clipped the winning runs off his pads to seal victory in the inaugural World Test Championship. They had been dominant since the first session of the first Test at Lord's, beating England 1-0 and then overcame India to put the finishing touches on their journey from no-hopers to world-beaters.
This tour has been a stark contrast: from the moment the touring party touched down in the UK, just about everything that could have gone wrong seems to have done so. On the fifth day of the trip, Nicholls tested positive for Covid-19, as did Blair Tickner and bowling coach Shane Jurgensen, and the virus has been a constant nuisance in the camp ever since.
Injuries have ripped the heart out of the team that beat India last year: the retired Taylor and BJ Watling have been ably replaced by Mitchell and Tom Blundell, but the losses of Colin de Grandhomme and Kyle Jamieson turned the first and second Tests respectively. Nicholls' dismissal even put de Grandhomme's horror day at Lord's - comically run out, denied Stokes' wicket by a front-foot no-ball and limping off with a foot injury - in perspective.
Mitchell, meanwhile, is having the worst best series of his - or just about any - career: he is averaging an eye-watering 150.33, yet somehow seems to have spent much of the past three weeks dropping catches at slip and running out his partners. At least he had one moment of fortune today. He was given not out on 8 when Matthew Potts' inswinger crashed into his pad and England decided not to review the on-field decision, only for ball-tracking to confirm it would have crashed into middle-and-leg.
By the close, his partnership with Blundell was worth 102, their third century stand of the series, and Stokes' non-review had cost 70 runs. New Zealand are clearly not where they would have liked to be after choosing to bat first but at least they had a wicketless evening session to cling to: without it, they would be staring down the prospect of a whitewash on the anniversary of their crowning moment.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98