This is why we love Test cricket!
England beaten by the barest of margins… but what a game
The sight of the england and New Zealand players happily kicking a ball around together on the Basin Reserve outfield after the dust had settled on one of the most remarkable climaxes to any Test was proof of the fundamental principle of Bazball.
Yes, of course england want to win, as a record that now stands at 10 victories from 12 Tests under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum demonstrates.
But there is a bigger picture at play and that is england’s mission to provide highly entertaining, positive and compelling cricket at all times to try to preserve the health of what, when played like this, remains unparalleled as the greatest form of the game.
And they really do mean it when they say they are prepared to risk losing to fulfil that mission, as proven by their reaction to defeat by the barest of all margins here as New Zealand won by a solitary run in the most dramatic circumstances.
That’s why it is impossible to criticise Stokes for his decision to enforce the follow-on, a move that gave New Zealand their only realistic chance of winning a second Test that looked beyond them after the first three days.
And it is impossible to blame a batting line- up who looked unusually hesitant and nervy in chasing down what, compared to the six successful chases they have already pulled off in the last year, should have been a routine trot to 258 to win this series.
New Zealand became only the fourth team to win after following on and england were denied their seventh successive victory, a historic clean sweep of all their winter Tests and their first series win in New Zealand since 2008. But, corny as it may sound, there were truly no losers at this magnificent old ground yesterday.
‘What a game,’ said Stokes without a shred of disappointment. ‘I just think if you can’t look back at that match and be thankful you have been involved in a game like that, you can’t love Test cricket.
‘We always want to give ourselves the best opportunity to win but sometimes you have to lose to really appreciate how good it is to win. And if you are going to lose then it’s better to do it in games like that. It was just a great game to be part of.’
That’s not to say it wasn’t heartbreaking to see Jimmy Anderson fall to a tiny tickle down the leg side with two runs needed after joining Jack Leach with seven required and duly dancing down the wicket and smashing Neil Wagner through long on for four.
It was only ahead of what became a drawn series that Anderson was being asked about england’s quest for him to score the winning runs in a Test, apparently offering him the chance to go in earlier last summer when a match was almost won.
The 40-year-old was having none of it then, saying: ‘I really have no desire to hit the winning runs in a Test. I like bowling.’ But how he would have loved to do so when that chance actually came against all expectations in front of a packed Basin Reserve.
even Anderson’s reaction after being dismissed was revealing. he did stop to ask umpire Chris Gaffaney why he had not called a wide by Wagner from the previous ball — england had a legitimate case but no one was moaning about it afterwards — but then was quick to shake the hands of the New Zealand players and, yes, even smile. ‘he just enjoyed the whole thing,’ said Stokes.
Contrast that to Anderson nine years ago when he was in tears after getting out against Sri Lanka at headingley when he seemed to have secured merely a draw. Make no mistake, this matters to Anderson, but he can see the wider picture now too. england lost four wickets in the first hour of the last day to leave New Zealand firm favourites, Joe Root somehow running out harry Brook before he had even faced a ball. It was the most decisive moment of many of them throughout this final Test. But former england captain Root joined his successor Stokes in a partnership of 121 that seemed certain to swing the game in england’s favour, before both were dismissed pulling unwisely in four balls from Neil Wagner to leave 57 still required.
That was when Ben Foakes, making a strong case to stay in this england side when Jonny Bairstow returns, took over and marshalled the tail brilliantly, taking his side to within seven of victory before he too fell pulling, caught well by Wagner off Tim Southee.
Anderson played the shot of his life off Wagner to take england to the brink but it was a case of so near yet so far, New Zealand enjoying the sort of finale they were on the wrong side of when england won ‘by the barest of margins’ in the 2019 World Cup final.
england could, of course, have batted their opponents out of the game had they not enforced the follow on. Any regrets, Ben?
‘ I thought it was the right decision thinking back to the way we ran through the New Zealand top order in the previous three
innings,’ said Stokes. ‘the wicket was doing plenty, it was overcast and it seemed as if it wasn’t going to deteriorate. If we find ourselves in that position again I’ll think about it, but chasing 258, we’ll just look back as a batting group and say we weren’t good enough.’
england have been plenty good enough over the past year and their transformation has continued in new Zealand with the big one against Australia this summer coming into view.
‘this ethos and the way we play won’t change when the pressure really does ramp up within the Ashes,’ promised Stokes. ‘I’m very excited about that challenge.’
So he should be. So should all of us. nobody present here today or following from afar can have failed to have been utterly transfixed by this test and, frankly, all the tests england are playing right now.
And that, in the face of the march of the franchises and the quest for a ‘new’ audience concentrated on twenty20 and the Hundred, can only be a good thing.