I was in London while the extraordinary second Test between New Zealand and England was being played at Wellington’s Basin Reserve. London is an even more inconvenient location than Singapore for following cricket in New Zealand. I woke up, as one does, in the witching hour of 28 February and thought to myself, are they still playing? It was the work of a moment to locate talksport2 on my phone. I knew that England were chasing a target of 258 and were 48 for one overnight. What had happened?
Well, they were still batting and Ben Foakes was in. What was the score? Oh my goodness, 247 for eight.
It doesn’t get much closer than that. Neil Manthorp’s brilliant commentary did the situation full justice.
We all know what happened next. At that moment, however – and this is a relatively rare event – all four results were possible. This was a genuinely exciting, thrilling even, climax.
New Zealand’s victory by one run equaled the record for the closest margin of victory in terms of runs, in Test history, held by West Indies in their win over Australia at The Adelaide Oval in 1992-93. This was one of those genuinely close encounters between two tremendous sides who seemed well matched: West Indies won the five match series two-one. At Adelaide the highest score was 252 and the lowest 146, both by West Indies. It was a traumatic Test debut for Justin Langer who was the ninth man out, for 54, in Australia’s second innings. The match had, as the Wisden report said, been a game of fluctuating fortunes throughout.
You could not say that about the match at the Basin Reserve. There, England were in total command for almost two and a half days. Then New Zealand mounted an admirable fightback. And finally, England confronted with the uncomfortably predictable and relentless Neil Wagner, who crucially removed Joe Root and Ben Stokes when they seemed to be taking England to victory, messed up their run chase.
On the always entertaining podcast Tailenders, James Anderson was asked if it was the most exciting Test match he had ever played in. The great man seemed to find it hard to accept that a match in which he had bowled 27 wicket less overs in the second innings, dropped a catch, and when the batters failed he had had to go out and win the match, failing by the narrowest of margins, was a career highlight.
What he said was that it was a fantastic finish (he probably didn’t really even think that) but that it was not a particularly thrilling match overall.
England have played some extraordinary cricket since Brendon McCullum and Stokes took over in June 2022. I would say that the three home Tests against New Zealand and the three games in Pakistan were all more interesting than this one.
Of course this game had some memorable features, apart from the dramatic finale, notably the batting of Harry Brook, Root and perhaps above all Player of the Match Kane Williamson. But it did not have the constant ebb and flow of the greatest Tests, most clearly exemplified perhaps by the only Test to end in a 2-run victory, England’s win over Australia at Edgbaston in 2005.
That the Basin Reserve match ended the way it did was due to one very significant fact. When England bowled New Zealand out in their first innings for 209, giving England a lead of 226, Stokes asked New Zealand to bat again. So the match was not simply the second Test to end with a one-run victory; it was also the fourth to be won by a side which had been asked to follow on. This was the 2,494th Test in all.
This decision by Stokes generated considerable argument.
The most withering criticism I came across was from the BBC radio commentator Simon Mann, who hosts the Analyst Inside Cricket podcast with Simon Hughes.
Hughes was full of enthusiasm for the England approach, saying that Bazball was keeping Test cricket alive, the result was a once in a generation sensation and all the rest of it.
Mann’s view was quite different. He said that enforcing the follow on was simply wrong. If England had batted again they would probably have won by a couple of hundred runs, and would certainly not have lost. At the same time, Mann did not accept that Stokes made the decision out of some altruistic desire to save Test cricket. He made it because he thought it was the best way to win the match, but it all went wrong (Williamson’s masterclass, Brook being run out without facing a ball, the Wagner factor, etc).
You can sort of see Mann’s point. It is a fact that the follow on is not enforced as frequently as it was historically. This is sometimes attributed to the shockwaves caused by India’s sensational victory over Australia in Kolkata in 2000-01 when they followed on 274 behind and won by 171 runs, with V V S Laxman (28) playing one of the great Test innings.
This seems improbable. It did not deter Steve Waugh, Australia’s captain at Kolkata, from enforcing the follow on on future occasions when it was appropriate.
The fact is that such occasions are fewer in the modern game. There are all sorts of reasons for this but the main ones relate to the management of bowling resources. Until relatively recently there was a rest day in Test matches. (In the famous Headingley Test of 1981, the rest day occurred after Australia had enforced the follow on and Ian Botham hosted his traditional barbecue for both teams on the Saturday night; on the Monday, he proceeded to make history.) More generally, there is a recognition that bowlers, especially fast bowlers, have to be looked after. Expecting them to perform in successive innings without a break may be too much.
From this perspective, Stokes’ decision certainly seems slightly odd. He chose to enforce the follow-on with an attack that included an opening pair with a combined age of 76, and a fourth seamer – himself – who was barely fit enough to bat, let alone bowl.
There were of course some valid cricketing reasons to enforce the follow on. Asking – well, telling – your opponents to go in again is as much a psychological weapon as a tactical or strategic one. There is an element of humiliation, of rubbing their noses in it. This is why it is such a rarity for a side to win after following on. England had played New Zealand four times since June 2022 and won each time, including an absolute trouncing in the first Test at Mount Maunganui. In the last two New Zealand innings, Anderson and Stuart Broad had shared 15 wickets.
On the other hand, despite New Zealand‘s problems in their first innings, there was no indication that the wicket was deteriorating; Tim Southee, going in at number nine, made 73, with five sixes and six fours. Stokes, speaking after the game, said the wicket was one of the best he had played on. Also, New Zealand can never be underestimated; this series turned out to be their eleventh undefeated home series in a row.
Mann was right to say that Stokes’ intention in enforcing the follow on was to win the match. He probably figured that if England batted on New Zealand would probably survive the fourth innings, while if England were set a target, recent form suggest they would probably reach it; given that they missed that target by only two runs, it was a reasonable call.
Of course nobody likes losing. But Stokes and McCullum took the result with great equanimity, as was clear from Manthorp’s commentary. This is where Mann missed the point. Stokes’ decision was affected by the bigger picture. He and McCullum have continually made it clear that they are prepared to lose in order to give England the best chance of winning. The game was always likely to be more entertaining, one way or another, if the follow on was enforced. Some commentators took the view that the follow on would never have been enforced if the opponents had been Australia. Who knows? But that analysis arguably underestimates both New Zealand and Stokes.
What is beyond doubt is that that final day – when admission was free – showed there can be few sports which offer the sheer enthralling, almost agonising, excitement provided by Test cricket. If only the game’s own administrators were able to recognise this. England’s hierarchy certainly do. As Rob Key said when McCullum and Stokes were appointed: “Buckle up and enjoy the ride.”
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