The psychology of pitching in Test cricket is a curious thing. On a glorious opening day at Trent Bridge, New Zealand galloped through stumps to 318-four, but while the run-rate was too high for England’s liking, the hosts could have imagined it was only slightly above average had they been asked to perform .
Instead, Ben Stokes was the captain who got the pick when the coin landed first, meaning that for all his side’s optimistic sweat and those four breakthroughs, their return can only be viewed less positively.
Her catching also resumed normal service after last week’s surge, four chances lost and Daryl Mitchell’s Joe Roots drop, three runs into an unbeaten 81, the most expensive. As is often the case when these teams meet on a cricket pitch, the level of entertainment was high and there were many sliding door moments.
The Nottingham crowd was treated to glorious sunshine and a wonderfully crisp stroke play from the tourists, not least during the uninterrupted fifth wicket stand of 149 between Mitchell and Tom Blundell, who reignited their Lord’s bromance and watched the latter make his way 67 crossed out, not out . And Stokes was not without his reasons. There was a touch of green on the pitch and the New Zealand top order, who had failed twice in last week’s five-wicket defeat, had been lost to Kane Williamson overnight by a positive Covid-19 test.
Tom Latham, represented for the sixth time in seven Tests, said he too would have rolled first and had an all-seam attack that suggested no attempt at kidology. Until a ball is rolled, the fingers are always crossed to some degree.
However, the surface was also dry, hard and rather slow despite some decent carries. New Zealand too are such a phlegmatic bunch that the loss of Williamson – a player already struggling for form – had little effect. The Tourists took a wonderfully positive approach to their insertion, sending 43 foursomes racing across a fast outfield as well as clearing the rope twice over the course of the three sessions.
Of course, with 26 from Latham, the lowest finish in New Zealand’s top six, this wasn’t the day Stokes had in mind. England’s captain was the bowler who got things going along the way, claiming to be two for 40, while Jimmy Anderson picked up a few himself and, predictably, was the most frugal on the show.
Stuart Broad tried to orchestrate some energy from his home fans and although expensive, he was unlucky not to take a wicket during a fiendish five-over burst after lunch when Zak Crawley beat Henry Nicholls by 17. Matt Potts was used oddly at times – we’ve learned he’s not an enforcer – while Jack Leach, returning from concussion, enjoyed an early turnaround but saw a tough chance against Blundell, which was crushed by Root.
There were no early signs that a cascade of wickets was possible and by the 20th over Stokes had played all five cards in his hand. Root’s pants were already badly smeared with crimson from his attempts to gain some momentum, but it wasn’t imminent, with Latham and Will Young calling the shots with a lively 84-run opening score instead.
Young was the main instigator, framing Stokes’ nine fours and two in a row to come in six innings within one stroke of his first half century. Instead, the aggression immediately gave way to a tentative defensive shot and Crawley held on to the second slip. When Anderson returned to the Pavilion end and caught Latham with a long hop at midwicket on the next ball, England finally had reason to celebrate.
One of the more amusing subplots of the morning had been England’s attempts to substitute the ball. Oddly enough, this abated after New Zealand resumed on 108 at 2 p.m. and the original suddenly began to move. After a ding-dong battle between Broad and Nicholls, it was Stokes who capitalized on the ball’s new life as New Zealand’s No. 4 ousted a lovely outswinger on 30 and trotted away.
At the other end, Devon Conway played a princely small inning, the newly promoted No. 3 unfolding a series of crisp cover runs. But four runs short of his half-century, he played for swing by Anderson only for the ball to hold its line and flick the inside edge. Ben Foakes made no mistake on a personally excellent day.
The scoreboard showed 169 for four, but should have read 170 for five seconds later. Mitchell, new to the crease, was knocked down by Root on the second slip to three to deny Stokes his third. It was a simple low bag and one that would be severely punished if Mitchell rolled over his form from that memorable century at Lord’s.
At tea, Mitchell and Blundell reached 195 for four and then plundered 123 runs in a final session that saw three overs vanish into the ether at the end. The former also killed every swing as he knocked Leach down for a powerful six and the ball plopped gloriously into an unsuspecting player’s pint glass.
Leach forced some unsuccessful checks while England waited patiently for the second fresh ball. But when it came a fourth opportunity went down, Broad teased an edge from Blundell on 63, only to see it fly catchable between Crawley on the second slip and Jonny Bairstow on the third.
According to Andy Zaltzman on Test Match Special, this was the 30th time England have fielded a home team since 1993, but only the second time their visitors had passed the 300 mark by just four wickets. New Zealand, trailing 1-0 in the series and absent Williamson, had undoubtedly won the day.