ENGLAND are under great pressure to save this first Test match after New Zealand amassed a commanding lead and control of the game. The problem was not what New Zealand scored – 523 – as that was what this excellent pitch deserved, but what England scored in their first innings.
The difference between the innings was the new ball. England scored 389 but suffered against both new balls. They were 30-4 Thursday morning and the tail was cleaned up Friday morning quickly. In contrast New Zealand reached 148 before losing a wicket in the 35th over.
That laid a platform for the rest of the side to build a score. The main man was Kane Williamson and what an elegant batsman he is. There are shades of their previous batting great in his cover drives. The smooth transition of weight into the ball, the balance and the smoothness of shot before the ball skims at pace towards the boundary is reminiscent of Martin Crowe and that is as grand a compliment a New Zealand batsman can ever get.
His 132 informed England of the high-class performer he is but also ensured his team would assume dominance in the game for the bowlers to exploit.
So what was the difference between the use of the new balls?
Quite simply New Zealand bowled a fuller length, allowed the swing and accepted being driven. It was beautiful to watch as ball after ball the England top order in both innings were dragged forward while their Kiwi counterparts were allowed to play more from the crease.
It came down to separation of the ball from where it pitched to hitting zone. The Kiwi batters had that split second longer to judge the ball after pitch and made more informed and better judgments.
And last evening, as England battled to earn parity, they were once again stymied by intelligent use of the new ball. A new ball will swing and at Lord’s it will act according to the slope. That is the challenge for top order batters. Adam Lyth can be forgiven for a poor match as he is on debut.
However, Gary Ballance has been found out. His initial movement is a massive step back into his crease. It takes him away from the ball and moves his balance back so it is almost impossible for him to move back into the ball with purpose. Both innings, caught edging in the first and bowled in the second, he was barely, if at all, in front of the popping crease. That would be fine against West Indies of the 1980s when personal safety was a real concern, but not for a normal Test attack.
When he was dismissed, England were two down and still 109 in arrears. It needed the old stalwarts, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, to make a stand, not just in runs but also in intent. Were England up for this fight or were they going to go quietly into the night?
The whole tenor of the summer could be set today and tomorrow. Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss and Peter Moores have dominated the England cricket news in recent weeks when really it should be the current players. Now is their opportunity. A draw with New Zealand would be a creditable result. They are a very good cricket team and England should appreciate that and accept a draw as a positive, maybe the first firm steps of a proper rebuilding process.