Match Analysis

Scenic Root sets up England for better things down the road

It may not be enough to set up victory, but England can take heart from their captain's tone-setting return to form

Joe Root celebrates reaching his double century  •  Getty Images

Joe Root celebrates reaching his double century  •  Getty Images

It probably won't be reflected in the result but, as England stretched their first innings past 150 overs, it started to feel like progress.
Let's be clear: this England team have several serious issues. They lack, on flat surfaces anyway, penetration with the ball and patience with the bat. They have questions to answer in both playing and delivering spin bowling and they will have to improve their catching if they are to seize key moments.
But, as Joe Root returned to form, as Ollie Pope showed he could tailor his game to the demands of the circumstances, as England registered their biggest Test innings since 2017 and their longest since 2015, it felt as if some of the management's messages were starting to sink in. The surface, the good quality New Zealand batting and the weather - rain is due around lunchtime on day five - will surely combine to thwart England's attempts to square this series but in the grand scheme of things, perhaps the result matters less than the process.
Let's look at Root's contribution first. During the course of this epic innings - at 441 deliveries, the longest of his career in terms of balls received - he moved into the top ten run-scorers in England's Test history. None of those above him have as high an average and only three England batsmen (Wally Hammond, Alastair Cook and Len Hutton) have scored more than his three Test double-centuries. This was also the highest Test score at Seddon Park and the highest by a visiting captain in New Zealand.
All this and Root is just 28 years old. Given just a little bit of luck with form and fitness, he may well move into the top two run-scorers for England before he is 31. Yes, he has endured a modest year by his standards and yes, his conversion rate of turning fifties into hundreds is modest by comparison with other top batsmen, but these statistics provide a reminder of what an outstanding career he has already enjoyed.
He was, he said, "hungry for it". And you can understand why. Before this innings, he averaged 27.40 in 2019, and he was given a lesson by BJ Watling in how to bat in such conditions in the previous game. He wasn't going to let this opportunity slip away. He gave no chances - well, none that didn't involve run-outs - and only fell when trying to set-up a declaration. It was, in many ways, a masterclass in denial, patience and playing within the limitations dictated by the conditions. It was admirably ruthless.
He said he hadn't been especially worried by his form. Frustrated, yes. But worried, no. For he has generally felt good at the crease and trusted in his talent to come through in time. Equally, he will know this innings doesn't answer all the queries. It buys him time, certainly, but he will probably need to average someway above 40 in 2020 if England are to prosper and if those questions about the captaincy are to be silenced.
"I've always felt like it's close," he said. "It's been more of a frustration that it's not really happened rather than a worry.
"I felt like I got a couple of really good starts and 50s in the Ashes and just didn't manage to go on. I found some peculiar ways to get out, I got some good deliveries and you chuck a couple of noughts in there - I got some good balls early on - and all of a sudden it feels like a while since you've scored a really big one. But I always felt it was close.
"I had the bit between my teeth and wanted to make it a really big one and try to get us in a position where we could force a result in this game."
He realised it was a slow pitch and showed a lot maturity in the way he went about it. He knew it was a crucial partnership and that we needed to set the game up
Joe Root on Ollie Pope's innings
Could England have pushed on earlier here? Certainly Root acknowledged he would have liked his side to have scored "another 40 runs and declared at tea". That way, New Zealand would have resumed on day five with a deficit still preying on their minds. But on this sluggish surface, any attempt to accelerate is prone to risk and nobody has achieved it.
Sometimes these things are much easier said than done and there didn't seem any way other than "the scenic Root", if you will. England's final run rate was almost identical to New Zealand's.
It would be easy to overlook an innings of 75 in such circumstances but Pope's contribution was also encouraging. By reaching this stage of his career with a first-class batting average of 57, he has given notice of his outstanding talent. But whereas he may be able to dominate in county cricket, he will be required to add some sophistication to his game if he is to prosper at Test level. In facing 202 balls here, with a strike-rate of 37.12, he suggested he could complement his talent with determination and patience. It was a point seized upon with some joy by Root.
"You look at the way Ollie plays for Surrey and he's very free-flowing," Root said. "He scores quite quickly and likes to put pressure on bowlers. But here he realised it was a slow pitch and showed a lot maturity in the way he went about it. He knew that it was a crucial partnership between me and him and that we needed to make sure that we set the game up. He read the situation really well and showed great maturity."
It must be acknowledged, this is a deathly docile pitch that ekes its entertainment out so begrudgingly the thought occurred that this style of Test cricket is anachronistic in this day and age. It seems churlish to complain about anything in a nation that is so welcoming and gracious in both victory and defeat and yes, recent Tests in New Zealand have a fine record of producing victories for one side or another. But, were the England spectators not present at Hamilton, there may have been a couple at the ground at most. It might not be wise to ignore that.
England have played on flat pitches before, of course. They haven't always responded with a performance to match. So to bat for this long and to score this many was encouraging. The last time they scored this many they were playing on an awful surface in Melbourne, while the last time they batted this long was in Abu Dhabi. On both occasions, Cook made double-centuries.
To see an opening batsman register a century, to see a 21-year-old resist for more than four hours, to see the captain return to form… None of this will have India or Australia quaking in fear just yet. But it all felt like progress from England.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo