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A Test of Character

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

If there is a better Test match this Ashes summer than the first Test between England and New Zealand at Lord’s then cricket supporters are in for a very special treat. This game had everything : more ebb and flow than a soap opera on speed; several epic personal performances; and , as always with the really great Test matches, telling displays of character.

Much credit must go to the Lord’s groundsman, Mick Hunt , for producing a pitch, and thus a match , that had something for everyone .

England, inserted by Brendon McCullum , endured a ” here we go again ” start and were 31 for four after thirteen overs with their most experienced batsmen , captain Alastair Cook and Ian Bell , among those back in the hutch. But a sterling revival was led by the increasingly dependable Joe Root and rising star Ben Stokes. They had already put on fifty by lunch and played with increasing authority through the afternoon. Both narrowly missed centuries but the good work was carried on by Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali. England’s eventual total of 389 seemed more than respectable.

It was put in perspective , though , by New Zealand’s reply. While England’s top four made 1,16, 1 and 1, New Zealand’s contributed 70, 59, 132 and 62. When play ended on the second day with the Kiwis on 303 for two , with Kane Williamson on 92 and Ross Taylor on 47 there seemed to be only one side in it.

New Zealand reached 523, and though the lead of 132 was substantial enough it represented something of a clawback by England. Their second innings started on the third evening and New Zealand’s much vaunted pace attack of Tim Southee and Trent Boult were again on target , with England 25 for two in the eighth over. Cook and Bell got them through to stumps. The fourth morning was going to be critical.

The under pressure Bell was out to the third ball of the day . Conditions were as favourable to the bowlers as at any time in the match but Cook and Root stood firm and prospered, putting on a critical 158 for the fourth wicket, before Root fell for 84 with the score on 232, a lead of 98.

The match was won, and lost, on the fourth afternoon. It was one of those occasions, not uncommon in Test cricket, when the taking of a new ball proves decisive – in favour of the batting side .

When Southee took the new ball with England on 269 for four , Cook was on 106 and Stokes had made 29 off 36 balls. That was after 80 overs. By the time Stokes was out, for 101 in the 95th over, off 92 balls , the score was 364 for five and the game had been transformed.

As the fifth day started , with Cook still batting , well supported by Ali , it was hard not to assume that England would not give themselves enough time to bowl the visitors out a second time. In fact the decision was taken out of Cook’s hands: England were all out in the eleventh over of the day and New Zealand were chasing a target of 345. After two overs they were nought for two; after six they were twelve for three .

It would be wrong to say it was all over bar the shouting. There was plenty of resistance from the middle order. But at the end of the day England’s pace attack – especially Stokes, a focused Stuart Broad and speedy new boy Mark Wood – were just too good. ( Both sides will be concerned about the ineffectiveness of their spinners. )

And at the end of the day, it all came down to character. Three stood out in the second half of the match.

Cook has been vilified almost as much as Ed Milliband in the last few months . His 162 in the second innings, spanning nine hours, was an immense feat of bloody- mindedness as much as technique. Stokes, joyous and uncomplicated with bat and ball, thrilled the crowd on the fourth evening with his assault on Southee and on the fifth afternoon personified England’s positive approach, dismissing New Zealand’s best batsmen , Williamson and McCullum, in successive balls, as they sought to rebuild. He could just be the hero English cricket has been yearning for since the departure of Andrew Flintoff.

And, lastly, there was B-J Watling. New Zealand’s wicketkeeper had a difficult game , barely keeping wicket after injuring a knee on the first morning. But he played two resilient and resourceful innings ,making 61 not out and 59 , spending more time at the crease than anyone other than Cook, Williamson and Root. Small and nuggety , even if you only see him bat you know he could only be a wicketkeeper.

At the end he was subjected to a sustained assault from Broad and then fell , gloving a lifter from Wood to Buttler. Watling walked, without waiting . There was no consideration of a pointless review ; he went , effectively taking New Zealand’s chances of survival with him.

It was a singularly impressive innings . Was it as exciting as the I PL?

Well, since you ask, yes.

Bill Ricquier, 27/5/2015

This article was featured in The Sunday Leader:

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