Fever-pitch cricket keeps contest bubbling in spite of placid deck

Breakneck speed of two 500-plus innings gives time for contest to reach tipping point

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Trent Boult put in a big effort, bowling 33.3 overs to finish with 5 for 106, England vs New Zealand, 2nd Test, Nottingham, 4th day, June 13, 2022

Trent Boult put in a big effort, bowling 33.3 overs to finish with 5 for 106  •  Getty Images

Trent Boult's deadpan conclusion was telling. Asked about the possibility of a result at the end of the third day, by which point England were still five wickets from completing their first innings and over a thousand runs had already been scored, he agreed all three results were possible.
And then added: "I hadn't played at Trent Bridge before, and I had heard rumours it was a good wicket. I can confirm that is true."
By that stage, it had been a great wicket for batters. New Zealand made 553 at 3.8 per over in their first innings. England had gone even harder and were, at that point, scoring at 4.14 per over. There had been four hundreds including two daddies. And when England began the fourth morning with a blitz of boundaries - 43 runs in the first five overs - it may have felt as if this was actually a poor wicket for those who prefer some balance between bat and red ball.
After all, by the time England's innings folded for 539, the combined run-rate across the first two innings of the game was 3.98, the second-highest in history for that portion of a Test (in which both sides scored 500+ runs). There were 163 boundaries (including 10 sixes) across the two innings, the joint-fifth highest in Test history.
Most Tests around the top of that list are remembered - if they are remembered at all - for how flat the surfaces were, a sense from very early on in each game that a draw was inevitable. The only Test above this in terms of run-rates across the first two innings is the Perth Test of 2015-16 between Australia and New Zealand, criticised at the time for being a "chief executive's pitch", from an era of very batting-friendly surfaces in Australia.
And it could be argued that the chances of a result increasing substantially has not had much to do with the surface. Michael Bracewell spoke of deterioration, but that sounded like a bluff ahead of his work on the final day. The truth is, not one of New Zealand's seven wickets - from Tom Latham's leave to Devon Conway's sweep to the run-outs - can be ascribed to the surface or even especially good bowling. What is slightly more credible is, as Bracewell said, their desire to move the game to a result: a draw means New Zealand can't win the series.
And yet, neither has it been as straightforward as the suggestion that this is simply a road. There has been swing through the game, more so under cloud cover. Boult, who ended with five, swung a 40-over ball through the morning, as he had done at various stages through England's innings. Ben Stokes and Matthew Potts were getting a 40-over-old ball to seam in New Zealand's third innings. The combination of boundaries and beaten edges has seemed unusual, to the degree that there have been times through the Test when the fact that both captains wanted to bowl first made some sense.
An outfield like an ice-rink has helped with the boundaries. "Good balls can be pushed into twos and almost to the boundary as well," Boult said yesterday. "Lots of boundaries hit. I suppose, from a bowling point of view, all we can do is look to stack on pressure and build good balls around good areas and if they're good enough to hit it, then so be it. I thought they were good enough to hit it."
Some of the batting - Daryl Mitchell and Joe Root in particular - has been more than good enough. Root spoke on the fourth morning of current players being able to rewrite the coaching manual; unburdened of captaincy, in rare form, and with a new coach keen on attack, he played arguably the most innovative Test innings of his 118-Test career.
The bounce in the pitch has taken leg-before as a mode of dismissal out, which is unusual for Tests in England. There isn't a single lbw of the 27 wickets to have fallen so far and only two bowleds. Tom Latham's leave looked bad, and in the binary world of leaves it was because he got out, but, on evidence from three days, it was reasonable to expect the ball to go over the stumps.
Problems with the ball - changed three times across both first innings - have not helped. Not as unhelpful as the catching though. Nine catches have been dropped in all, including most significantly, each one of the game's highest scorers. Had the success rate been anywhere near that at Lord's, the scorecard surely would not now be showing two 500-plus totals.
The rate of scoring, in fact, may be what defines the Test. Ben Foakes said that the game had been like the Indian version of Test cricket, where 500 plays 500 and then everything happens at the end. He's right. Kind of.
It has been an inverse version of those, a fast slow-burning Test. It is now at this denouement not because the surface has deteriorated, but because both sides have scored at the speeds they have. There was probably a little perspective-retrofitting in Bracewell attributing New Zealand's second-innings wickets to "super positive" cricket - two run-outs, the Latham leave and a couple of other dismissals did not feel super positive.
But they need to win this Test. And England getting close to New Zealand in the first innings as quickly as they did set it up in the first place.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo