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England’s series defeat means supposed new era gets off to flat start

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2 days ago Ali Martin at Seddon Park
a man in a baseball game: Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes were part of a bowling attack that, statistically, ranks as England’s least threatening in history by way of collective output. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes were part of a bowling attack that, statistically, ranks as England’s least threatening in history by way of collective output. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

For the second time in less than two years England’s Test team leave New Zealand with a 1-0 series defeat to show for their efforts; a hammering in the first outing and a slightly improved follow-up performance that still ended with a draw and handshakes.

That said, while only 41 overs were bowled on a soggy final day, one that typically brightened up once the umpires had called things off, this still felt a flatter finish from Joe Root’s beaten tourists than last year’s thwarted late surge in Christchurch.

Talk of afternoon rain and the 22 yards of flat, scarcely-diminished middle earth meant it was nigh-on impossible to force anything but the stalemate. That didn’t mean the tourists could simply see out the match waiting for the heavens to open. Root will have wanted to sign off the start of this supposed new era with one last push.

Yet a tour of many impotent periods in the field saw one final wicketless outing, during which came a particularly sorry loss of focus when Joe Denly dropped Kane Williamson on 62, en route to Test century No 21. It had onlookers instantly trying to work out if this was the worst they had ever seen, with Mike Gatting’s bungled effort off Kiran More in Madras 26 years ago the most-cited challenger here.

Root looked nonplussed at the time and then later tried to laugh it off at the press conference, describing this looping chance at short mid-wicket, chiselled our by a fine bit of knuckle-ball trickery by Jofra Archer, as a “one-off goober” that Denly would be reminded of for some time. The only comfort came through its lack of consequence.

But then it also summed elements of their downfall, not least with Archer the bowler denied this prized scalp during a promising final burst on a tour that has otherwise been an eye-opening first overseas assignment. It has also been one that, statistically, ranks as England’s least threatening in history by way of collective output.

They took a wicket every 115.7 balls sent down which, according to the number-crunching statistician Andy Zaltzman, beat a previous worst strike-rate of 114.5 during the six-Test 1989 Ashes. An average of 56 runs per breakthrough was only mildly better.

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These were, it must be said, two grim flat pitches that many felt did the sport few favours by way of a spectacle. But then the seemingly indefatigable Neil Wagner still found a way, bending his back for 13 wickets at 19 runs apiece.

Yet the Kookaburra ball remained kryptonite in English hands for long periods. Stuart Broad played the old pro, keeping the runs down and picking his moments, while Sam Curran and Ben Stokes never lacked for perspiration. The main plus came from Chris Woakes in the second Test, a seamer who came in cold by way of warm-up time and delivered the kind of overseas showing many thought beyond him,

Denly’s blooper wasn’t the only drop on the last day to cause their collective final strike-rate. Williamson’s first life in the morning came on 39 when Ben Stokes, whose effort was commendable given a dicky knee, fired one into the New Zealand captain’s ribs. It took the glove, only for Ollie Pope to show up his emergency wicketkeeper role for the selectorial carelessness it was by grassing a diving yet regulation pouch down leg.

Neither chance was as costly as the one put down at slip by Stokes in Mount Maunganui, when BJ Watling turned 31 into an ultimately series-winning double century. Williamson and Ross Taylor, who brought up his 19th Test century moments before the rain by sweeping two fours and a six off Root, were not playing a couple of match defining innings on the final day.

Nevertheless, they were the fourth and fifth New Zealand batsmen to make centuries across the two Tests – Tom Latham and Mitch Santner the others – compared to England’s two. Root’s double-century was a bloody-minded return to the runs column and timely as regards the swirling debate over his captaincy, while Rory Burns will hopefully grow in confidence from his second at Test level.

These came a Test match too late, however, the defeat at Bay Oval having consigned England to their first year without a series win since 1999 and thanks to a sub-par 353 all out of three unconverted half-centuries from Burns, Denly and Stokes.

While England keep talking about the Ashes in 2021-22, New Zealand now fly to Perth this Saturday for a three-match series in Australia. This talented, humble and coherent Black Caps team – possibly their best – will still be underdogs though. When asked for his tip, Root replied: “I think they’ve got all the tools that can be successful out there.”

It was one last compliment in a series that played out impeccably by way of relations between the two teams. At the same time, it also highlighted how much work Root’s men have to do if they are get theirs nearly as sharp.

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