At The Oval, August 19, 20, 21, 22. New Zealand won by 83 runs. Toss: England. Test debuts: E. S. H. Giddins, D. L. Maddy.

Ten minutes after lunch on the fourth day, Roger Twose, an English emigrant, held a steepling catch at mid-on that gave victory in the match - and the series - to a young and self-confident New Zealand side. The ignominy of a home defeat by the team previously considered the weakest in Test cricket unleashed a hail of criticism on the England players and - after the departure during the summer of the coach and two selectors - what remained of the management. This was no ordinary failure. As almost everyone noticed, the defeat meant that for the first time since the Wisden World Championship was launched in 1996, England were at the bottom of the heap.

In truth, England's performance was not wholly inept. Hussain's captaincy was inventive, the bowling thoughtful and the fielding near-faultless. The batting, though was execrable. Atherton held the second innings together for a while but, the moment he was out, the familiar, gaping deficiencies were cruelly exposed. The end, as it usually is with England, was swift, painful and rather embarrassing.

With both teams able to win the series, the stakes were high. On the first morning, they were raised again. Cornhill, who had pumped almost £25 million into English Test cricket since 1978, let it be known they were reviewing the sponsorship deal. The implication was that, if results did not improve, it would not be renewed in 2000.

England's reformed regime made five changes: Butcher, captain at Old Trafford, lost out to Darren Maddy, playing his first Test, and regarded as having the requisite appetite to succeed; Hick made way for Hussain, recovered from his broken finger; Read was dropped so that Irani, a county colleague of Hussain's, could play as an all-rounder, with Stewart taking back the gloves; and Such and the injured Headley were replaced by Ed Giddins, another debutant, and Mullally. Silverwood, again, and 20-year-old Graeme Swann of Northamptonshire were omitted from a squad of 13. New Zealand replaced Harris with O'Connor, though it would have been Allott had he been fit.

Heavy rain meant that the pitch had sweated for two days beneath the covers, prompting Hussain to bowl first. Although the bounce remained constant throughout, the ball swung and spun from the word go; only Cairns, in New Zealand's second innings, overcame the doubt and hesitancy that characterised both teams' shoddy batting. On the first morning, Caddick, bowling a fuller length, was almost unplayable, and at one stage had conceded just four runs from 12 overs. The first wicket took 26 overs to arrive, though, and with New Zealand 45 for one at lunch, it seemed they had weathered the initial storm. But after struggling to make a breakthrough, England took six more wickets with comparative ease. Selection policy was given a fillip, too: the two debutants combined to dismiss Twose when Maddy, at third slip, leapt skywards and held a magnificent two-handed catch to give Giddins his first Test wicket.

Having received scant support from the specialist batsmen, Fleming at last found an ally in Nash. Together, they rebuilt the innings from the ruins of 104 for seven but, by the close - and with Nash gone for a battling 18 - New Zealand were a precarious 170 for eight. Next morning, it all went wrong for England. Vettori got runs first from the edge of the bat, then from the middle. He scored 51 in 48 balls, put on 78 for the ninth wicket with Fleming at almost five an over and wrested the initiative.

England made it to lunch at 24 without loss but, just as with New Zealand, concentration wavered after the break. Atherton nibbled at one from Nash, and then Maddy, Atherton's 11th opening partner in Tests, fell to a classic piece of deception from Vettori. He pitched successive balls on the same spot for totally different results and left Maddy playing no shot at a ball which clipped off stump. Later, Hussain blundered into a more obvious trap and hooked Cairns straight to backward square leg.

Ramprakash and Caddick put on 47, but early on the third morning England were bowled out for 153, a deficit of 83. Vettori bowled 31 consecutive overs and eventually had cramp in his spinning finger, which had to be uncurled by umpire Venkat.

For the 14th time in a row, England trailed on first innings. But just when the press were yet again preparing to fill their laptops with vitriol, the bowlers produced something special. England's previous six Test wins had come off the back of a first-innings deficit and, with New Zealand hurtling towards disaster at 39 for six - an overall lead of 122 - a seventh was on the cards. Caddick and Giddins had taken three wickets each with intelligent, accurate bowling, and the New Zealand batsmen had rolled over as tamely as their English counterparts. Then Cairns changed everything with an innings of uncompromising, Bothamesque belligerence. Playing off the front foot to minimise the effect of lateral movement, he hit 80 from 94 balls, including four sixes, all off Tufnell, and eight fours. The most audacious of hundreds was denied him when Mullally clung on to a brilliant reflex catch after Cairns had smashed the ball straight back at him. The damage, though, had been done. Despite Tufnell quickly claiming the last two wickets, England were left needing 246, the highest score of the match.

They lost two wickets cheaply but, by the close, sensible batting from Atherton and Thorpe saw them to 91. This switchback of a Test promised an intriguing climax. England needed an overdue hundred from a top-order batsman or, failing that, a century partnership. But, for the first time ever in a home series of more than two Tests, they could produce neither. Once Atherton was fourth out for a positive 64 - the 50th time he had reached 50 in Tests - the batting descended into farce, the remaining six wickets adding 19 runs. Over their two innings, England's last three wickets fell for a total of two runs; New Zealand's 92. Chairman of selectors David Graveney belatedly promised that England would never again pick what amounted to three No. 11s - Mullally, Tufnell and Giddins- in the same Test. Graveney was not in the best of moods even before the defeat; he had only recently discovered that Thorpe had opted out of the winter tour and was furious at not being told earlier. The crowd jeered as Hussain collected the loser's cheque.

Man of the Match: C. L. Cairns.

Attendance: 60,452; receipts £1,386,075.

Men of the Series: England - A. R. Caddick; New Zealand - C. L. Cairns.

Close of play: First day, New Zealand 170-8 (Fleming 52*, Vettori 7*); Second day, England 150-7 (Ramprakash 30*, Mullally 2*); Third day, England 91-2 (Atherton 44*, Thorpe 28*).