THE beauty of Test cricket is a match rarely moves constantly in the direction of one side. For all morning and most of the afternoon England had wrested this match back from New Zealand and courtesy of a splendid partnership of 123 between Jonathan Trott and Joe Root were in the process of building a dominant lead.
It was hard fought, but Test cricket should be, and suggested they should build a large total in excess of 300 that New Zealand would fail to chase.
And then four wickets in seven overs made it New Zealand’s day. With Ian Bell only batting at the very end of the day and clearly suffering from flu, and the lead only 196 England had gone from a position of authority to one that suggested they would need something special tomorrow to avoid defeat.
Root was the wicket that caused the mini-panic.
It had been a wonderful innings. He had come to the crease after both openers, Alastair Cook and Nick Compton, had been dismissed cheaply with the lead 61 and the game in the balance. His partner, Jonathan Trott, was already absorbed in his own bubble of concentration. It is why he is so good in pressure situations but does not always help his partner as he tends to ignore the scoreboard completely. That can be dangerous as an innings that grinds to a halt usually suffers a flurry of wickets. Root prevented that by accumulating quickly.
Some players break shackles with aggressive shot-making. It can be mightily effective but also high risk. Root did not do that. He simply batted with authority, picked the gaps in the field as Brendon McCullum, the New Zealand captain, pressed for another wicket, and ran hard between the wickets.
His foot movement is positive, concise and he remains beautifully balanced. He does hustle hard for every run which did cause a scare or two with Trott, so he will need to learn to develop good relationships with the other batsmen but his intent cannot be faulted. He reached 50 in 78 balls, played some elegant shots and is proving the hope of many that he could be a long term high quality international player.
His dismissal, dragging one off Tim Southee, however did start a collapse. Jonny Bairstow was set up by McCullum and Southee with a field set so the bowler could bowl full and straight, Matt Prior on a pair pulled lamely to midwicket and then Trott was bowled by part-time off-spinner, Kane Williamson.
The only good news for England was the ball that bowled Trott spun hard out of the rough and that should benefit Graeme Swann.
They will need a lot more runs today though. New Zealand will not want to chase many more than 250 although one decent partnership would be enough to win. They will have to negate the excellent Anderson whose efforts in the morning earned him yet another five-wicket haul.
Since 2010 he has led the England attack but rarely as well as this match. It was fitting that during the innings his excellence brought him his 300th Test wicket.
He moved the ball both ways, which is a skill few possess in the world game, and did so with great accuracy. It was compelling and every batsman was watchful against him, although there is some sympathy for Bruce Martin who was bowled by a beauty that would have done for any of the top order batsmen. It started in towards the middle stump, moved very late in the air, defeating the forward prod and clipped the top of off-stump. Some like that will be needed again though.
The other major threat will be Swann. Williamson was difficult to play as the two left-arm seamers, Neil Wagner and Trent Boult, had created a lot of rough outside the right handers’ off stump and Swann is a far superior bowler to the New Zealander.
There was sharp turn and plenty of encouragement for close catchers. Cook will be hoping whatever the final lead is he will have a burst with the new ball from the seamers and then can set Swann on autopilot form the Nursery End.
Not only will the worn pitch make him a real threat as a wicket-taker but he should also be very difficult to score off. Captains love bowlers that can offer such control of the game. Swann should do so, the only question is will the remaining four wickets score enough runs to give him enough time to win the game.