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Match Analysis

Transitional New Zealand cherish Tom Blundell's latest vital contribution

BJ Watling's successor plays fire-fighter then fire-starter to reduce first-innings deficit

Brendon McCullum goes above and beyond to underplay his impression on this England team, particularly when it comes to tactical matters. But on day four of the second Test against New Zealand at Trent Bridge last summer, he couldn't hide. Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes were pointing right at him.
Broad bowled the ball. Stokes, stationed around the corner at a deep backward square leg position on the 45, took the catch. Tom Blundell, off the back of 106 in the first innings, had to go for 24. McCullum had noted England hadn't really gone short to the New Zealand wicketkeeper, and noticed he also liked a swivel after making contact to guide the ball behind square. If they could extract a bit of extra bounce on the right line, he could easily hit it through the air.
Hey presto, Broad found the channel and Stokes didn't have to move an inch. And a batter who had been a thorn in their side - Blundell finished the three-match series with 383 runs at an average of 76.60 - was seen off with ease. The two involved turned to the balcony and pointed at their head coach, whose face-obscuring combination of cap and sunglasses were now utterly redundant.
A short-ball plan with an unconventional field is nothing new with this England team, but this was one of the first instances of it coming off. When Stokes brought himself on to open the second session on day two of this Test in Mount Maunganui, the hosts trailing by 187 with five first-innings wickets remaining and a pink Kookaburra not playing ball, few were surprised by the field.
Nine Tests on from Nottingham, the doubling up along the sightlines of midwicket, square leg and fine leg have been normalised. But there was one different between what was set for the two batters. All behind square for Devon Conway were on the fence. Blundell, however, had an old friend lurking on the 45.
There was no reacquaintance. Though Conway's field had a whiff of preservation, he would be the man to succumb, reaching high and wide outside off stump and tamely diverting to Ollie Pope close in at square leg. The opener had gone for 77, New Zealand - 158 for 6 - seemingly on their way to a first-innings deficit that could prove terminal.
That it didn't was squarely thanks to Blundell, who by then had already decided he was in it for the long haul. He arrived to the crease at 83 for 5 after Daryl Mitchell, a man with whom he combined for 538 runs in that 2022 series for an average 107.6 per stand, had fallen for a duck. This time it was all on him.
Though stumps came with England 98 ahead early in their second innings, his 138 runs were a godsend, closely followed by the dismissals of Ben Duckett and Zak Crawley in the final hour's play. Blundell should have made it three by taking charge when Nighthawk Stuart Broad skied his second ball. Nevertheless, his fifth Test century is why New Zealand aren't lagging further behind.
Did he pack away the pull shot? Quite the opposite: 67 scored off the 58 short deliveries faced, making up 48 per cent of his runs. That's above his average across 13 fifty-plus scores (41 per cent), and considerably higher than the 28 (Trent Bridge) and 24.5 per cent (against Australia at the MCG) in his two previous three-figure scores.
"I love it when it's short," smiled Blundell in his press conference, like a chicken who'd been left with the grain. "It works into my wheelhouse a little bit. It felt like when they went bumper plan, we were able to score rather than when they were just hitting nice length it was actually quite hard to score at times. It's something I pride myself on, playing the short ball."
Of course, it wasn't all short and it wasn't quite freewheeling. His first 50 took 96 deliveries, by which point the score was 195 for 7. It was only when Tim Southee fell (247 for 9) that he finally put his foot on the accelerator.
The very next over (72nd) was taken for 14: a flat six over midwicket, before finishing with a brace of fours through cover and midwicket. After No. 11 Blair Tickner played out a maiden, a dodgy hack then a deft dab to fine leg moved him to a crisp 100 from 143. From that moment on, he says his aim was simple: "Hit the ball to the moon".
The one that came closest ended up nestling in the hands of James Anderson for a caught-and-bowled to end the innings just 19 behind. The final stand finished on 59, Tickner chipping in with 3 not out off 24 balls thanks largely to Blundell's protection and advice to "line up nice and straight". He said: "For him [Tickner] to do that was bloody amazing."
That last-wicket partnership sums Blundell up. You can generally split wicketkeeper-batters into two types: fire-fighters and fire-starters. And while some closer to one side of than spectrum than the other, few sit as close to the middle as Blundell. He is, ultimately, a facilitator.
Analysing his method and charting his rise is one of the same given it is almost entirely forged by his experiences. Since a debut in December 2017 - and a century at the first time of asking - it took him three years to earn five caps. Caps four to 11 saw him operate as an opener - a hundred in the first Test of that run, too, against Australia in the 2019 Boxing Day Test - before dropping back to the middle order which he jokes suited him just fine.
It's worth noting here that he used to be an off-spinning allrounder. And it's especially neat that he fulfilled that role for Colchester and East Essex Cricket Club in the Shepherd Neame Essex League in 2012. Their keeper at the time? England's Ben Foakes. It was only in the period between then and returning to the club in 2013 he took up the gloves full time.
Even the last week, in which he and his partner had their second child - Freddie - offered a bit of extra clarity, even if it prevented him from picking up a bat in between. He was one of the marooned five as the squad arrived in dribs and drabs in the lead-up to this first of two Tests.
None of this is a route to success at the top level, even if Blundell described a lot of it as "great". But the stop-start beginnings allowed him to work out what he needed to do to thrive. So when BJ Watling (fire-fighter) retired after the World Test Championship victory over in the English summer of 2021, the player and person he was could not have been better aligned to what New Zealand needed him to be.
It is fitting Watling's career-best (205) came at Bay Oval against England back in 2019, just as Blundell's has in 2023. The difference between those knocks acknowledges where those respective New Zealand teams were and are in their life cycle. Watling's set up an innings victory. Blundell's, at this juncture, might only have delayed defeat.
This is very much a New Zealand team in transition, through reasons ranging from a golden generation moving on or into their final years and a cricket's rapidly expanding ecosystem diminishing their pull on their own players. Which is all the more reason to cherish Blundell.
Underlining his value is the fact Friday's knock puts him up top, ahead of Tom Latham, as the country's leading run-scorer since the World Test Championship final. At 32, Blundell's gratitude at where he is right now is matched by New Zealand's gratitude that he is where he is right now.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo