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Match Analysis

England left longing for X-Factor as new Test management face up to home truths

Ben Stokes struggles for answers as New Zealand pair grind England down

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
"It'll be difficult, no doubt, looking across to the New Zealand balcony at times - but that's just life," Brendon McCullum had said in the build-up to his first Test as England coach. But of all the emotions he might have expected to feel while gazing in their direction, envy probably wasn't the first name on the team-sheet.
Two days into the gig, the magnitude of McCullum's challenge yawns before him, even as his former team-mates kicked back in the June sunshine, and soaked up an unbeaten 180-run stand that is just 30 runs shy of New Zealand's all-time record in England, and already 41 runs higher than anything England mustered in their 2021 home summer.
All he could do was watch and digest, as Tom Blundell and Daryl Mitchell thwarted England's apparent morning surge with uncomplicatedly dour application, piecing together a 56-over alliance that spanned roughly the same timeframe as the previous 14 wickets of New Zealand's performance.
Wishful thinking alone was never likely to right England's listing ship, and so in the long run it may actually help McCullum's cause for this contest to continue to go south at a rate of knots - much like the 2-for-4-and-all that that greeted Duncan Fletcher at Johannesburg in 1999-2000, or the 51-all-out in Jamaica a decade later that gave Andy Flower licence to get biblical on England's standards. McCullum did declare, after all, that England are at "rock-bottom" - it's probably prudent to feel the sea-bed for himself before using it to kick for the surface.
In Matt Potts, at least, he's already identified a gem - an intelligent, but down-and-dirty toiler who has already added two more scalps to his four from the first innings, and who looks, on the face of it, to have bought in unequivocally to McCullum's gut-busting imperatives. And if, even in what now seems likely to be a losing cause, one of England's young-gun batters can show a return on the investment of faith that has been placed in them, his project will have just a touch more traction to take into the rest of the summer.
For the time being however, all the promise of England's new beginnings has ebbed away from this particular contest, leaving Paul Collingwood, the assistant coach, to trot out a refrain that he himself became all too accustomed with during the team's toothless travails in Australia and West Indies.
"We've tried hanging the ball out there with the seamers, we tried going straight. [We] had a bit of a bounceathon session, which nearly created a couple of chances"
Paul Collingwood, England's assistant coach
"Certainly the rhythm of the game has completely changed this afternoon," Collingwood said. "Yesterday's excitement, the movement in the pitch and obviously all the wickets falling… you think that kind of excitement was going to continue for the rest of the day.
"But I think the heavy roller made a decent impact, which is good signs for us for our second innings, and once the ball got soft we weren't able to create too many chances. Give a lot of credit to Mitchell and Blundell for the way they played. From our point of view, we tried everything I think."
From heavy-metal cricket to heavy-roller chat. The game doesn't get sixier than that.
Unquestionably the ball did not play ball for England's quicks in this second innings. The atmospherics that had been in attendance on day one had vanished, and so too the spurious suggestions that this Lord's surface had been doctored - for the record, it has consistently been the flattest in the country ever since MCC installed its state-of-the-art drainage system some 15 years ago, and inadvertently sucked all the moisture from the square.
In its place, we got a benign day-two wicket that rewarded New Zealand's canny application, and left England regretting - not for the first time this year, and certainly not the last - that they have exhausted their entire stock of 90mph bowlers through a heady combination of injury, ill-fortune and rank mismanagement.
Oh, for an X-Factor. That eternal cry of English cricket. In the mid-afternoon, just when England most wished they could unleash the sort of hot wheels that could have unlocked a well-set partnership, Sky Sports flashed up a list of England's wounded quicks. The names on that doom-scroll included Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, Olly Stone and Saqib Mahmood at the brisker end of the spectrum, as well as Ollie Robinson and Chris Woakes among the less-express options with proven records at Lord's.
And in their absences, it was as though England were enduring an Adelaide flashback, as Ben Stokes took it upon himself to dispatch three men back for the hook, rustle up a short leg and a catching midwicket, and indulge in what Collingwood later termed a "bounceathon".
It was mercifully short-lived - albeit it nearly succeeded in tempting Mitchell to hole out to mid-on - but given these were the tactics that caused his side-strain during the Ashes, just briefly you wondered if Stokes was already slipping into the Generalissimo phase of his captaincy, the sort of beginning-of-the-end that Andrew Flintoff produced while wrecking his dodgy ankle with a 50-over spell on this very ground in 2006.
"You can see in Stokes, we've got a proactive captain there who is willing to try different things," Collingwood said. "We've tried hanging the ball out there with the seamers, we tried going straight. Obviously, you had a bit of a bounceathon session there, which nearly created a couple of chances."
And yet, the one thing that Stokes didn't really try out was the newest toy in his armoury. It wasn't until 3pm on this second day that Matt Parkinson was given his first outing, and even allowing for the impossibility of his first-innings involvement - he was still somewhere on the M1 when New Zealand's final wicket fell - his introduction at 90 for 4 in the 33rd over felt reticent, certainly when compared to the decisiveness of England's concussion call on that chaotic first morning.
It felt muddled too, as if Stokes - like Root before him - had no intuitive feel for the new man at his disposal. Each of his first ten overs were bowled from the Pavilion End, thereby requiring his legbreak to turn up the slope rather than roll with it, and while Collingwood later justified the move by claiming that England were looking for drift and "slide" for lbws and bowls, the tactics attracted more than a few raised eyebrows from an unusually legspin-savvy media contingent.
For it is Parkinson's fate that his debut should be so intertwined with a match that has the late, great Shane Warne so central to the narrative. His call-up was announced just moments before the game paused for remembrance in the 23rd over, and is being presided over from Sky Sports' newly consecrated Shane Warne Commentary Box, from where his old captain, Mark Taylor, euphemistically described Stokes' choice of ends for Parkinson as "interesting" … with the word taking on the sort of connotations that "ordinary" often did for his old mate.
Again, it's too early to presume anything about long-term trends in this match, for England as a whole, for Stokes as a captain, and certainly for Parkinson as a weapon - after all, barely 36 hours have elapsed since he was spirited away from his Jubilee barbecue in Manchester.
But there's something especially fragile about the plight of English legspinners. Thirty years, after all, have elapsed since Ian Salisbury's debut on this ground against Pakistan, and the manner in which the hope of that magnificent occasion dissipated was brutal, while each of the last two specialists to play here - Chris Schofield in 2000 and Adil Rashid in 2018 - didn't even bowl a single ball.
So, in that respect, at least he's up and running - liberated from the bubble-life purgatory that has been his lot for the past two years, and released into the wild at a time when his county form, 24 wickets at 25.95, certainly permits him to trust his talents in the Baz-prescripted manner. But, as with pretty much everything about England's performance from the first-day lunchbreak onwards, the room for improvement is palpable.
"I'm sure it's been a big shock," Collingwood said. "Obviously he was in his back garden yesterday afternoon and gets a phone call, rushes down to London, receives his cap off Jeetan Patel and goes out there. I'm sure he would prefer the game to be a bit longer - in days three, four and five - so there wasn't a hell of a lot of assistance out there. But what you can see is a pretty accurate legspin bowler and I'm sure he's delighted with the experience and enjoyed his day."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket