Sunday, April 14, 2013

New Zealand v England, 1st Test, University Oval, Dunedin, 6–10 March 2013

A midsummer dawn, June 1978. Catching the first train on the north Kent line; urging the tube faster around the Central Line to make a 125 from Paddington to Taunton; arriving to find standing room only for the 55-over semi-final between Somerset and Kent. No matter. They played for an hour before the rain set in.

For 35 years the 212 miles between Herne Bay and Taunton remained my personal record for travel to a washed-out day’s cricket. Not any more.

The present day. Take off from Wellington as the sun rises, change at Christchurch, a lift cadged from Dunedin airport (curiously located some distance from the city), and a hurried walk to the University Oval, the world’s most southerly Test ground. More portliness, less hair, but the same sharp anticipation of a day’s cricket in a new place, the same fatalism when the first drop of rain hits the ground the second I walk through the gate. 472 miles for a washout. New record.

No matter. My Whiteladies Road Correspondent, just arrived from the frozen north, was sheltering under a tree, and we repaired to a bar to dry out and swap old stories.

The second day provided rich consolation. It was one of the best—and certainly the most surprising—day’s Test cricket that I have seen. My correspondent remarked on the downbeat mood of the locals as far as the cricket was concerned compared to his last visit, in 2008. I explained that we had become as accustomed to failure as an Italian field-marshall and were simply providing verbal ballast against the tide of disappointment. There was relief that Brendon McCullum had put England in. We would settle in and watch England bat for a couple of days. At least there would be no New Zealand collapse today.

Southee induced Compton to play on in the third over, but nothing suggested that either the pitch or the bowlers would be a source of English distress. But on his first day as captain in a home Test (and in his home town) McCullum was Midas. Every bowling change seemed to take a wicket, every field change an irresistable lure for the batsman to hit the ball straight to the relocated fielder.

His first bowling change, an obvious one, replaced Southee with Wagner. Unaccountably, Alistair Cook slapped Wagner’s second delivery straight to Rutherford at point. Next ball Wagner welcomed Kevin Pietersen with the ball of the day, one of full length that swung in late to trap him leg before.

Bell and Trott settled in for an hour until Bell drove straight at Rutherford at short extra cover, a third wicket for Wagner. Was the ball stopping a little or was it simply the Englishmen’s inbred suspicion of abroad that causes them to start away series so poorly?

Another McCullum bowling change, another wicket. Left-armer Boult pushed one across Root, who edged to second slip. Eighty for five at lunch. Enough to overcome local reticence? No. There were two lines of argument. First, that Prior or Trott, probably both, would be good for a century in the afternoon. Second, that the pitch had devils (unspecified) in it, and that New Zealand would struggle to make three figures. Three fours off successive Boult deliveries by Prior suggested that the former was the more likely explanation, but it was time for an unlikely hero to step forward.

Bruce “Buck” Martin was selected for the New Zealand twelve against Australia at Hamilton in 2000, but was omitted on the first morning. The selectors did not call again until the tour of South Africa early this year, but Martin was not picked for a Test. So here he was, 32 years old and 14 seasons into his career, on Test debut. Buck played for Northern Districts when I was CricInfo’s man at Seddon Park, so I was happy to be there when he finally bowled with the fern on his jersey, but a mite concerned that the step up to international level would expose him.

I need not have worried, not today at least. He sent both potential centurions back to the rooms, within four balls of each other. Prior became Martin’s first Test victim when he top-edged a cut to Williamson at backward point. Trott followed in Martin’s next over, another top edge, well caught by Boult, running in from short fine leg.

His third wicket owed much to McCullum‘s new-found ability to travel about 30 seconds into the future before returning to the present to set the field accordingly. Brownlie was pushed back to the mid-wicket boundary; Broad hit the very next ball—a long hop— straight to him. It is difficult, watching Broad bat, to work out how he could possibly have scored 160 in a Test, as he did against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010, such is the absence of worthwhile brain activity in his approach.

Buck Martin was jubilant. Players who come to the international game late usually savour it all the more, the perspective of experience allowing them to appreciate their time in the sun knowing that it will be short.

Finn and Anderson were obdurate for a while, but England were all out for 167, 300 fewer than the visiting supporters were hoping for, and 700 fewer than the home fans feared.

Martin and Wagner had four wickets each. Wagner was playing his first Test in his adopted homeland after a protracted qualifying period, so two patient bowlers had good days. The New Zealand bowling was certainly tidy and disciplined, but most of the England batsmen got out to bad shots.

What had happened before tea was, to we locals at least, astonishing. But what occurred in the final session suggested that credulity had an elasticated waistband, so far was it stretched. For at the close New Zealand were 131 for (and here’s the thing) none, the recalled Peter Fulton and debutant Hamish Rutherford untroubled, indeed  dominant. We wandered away from the University Oval much like kids leaving Disneyland for the first time, our emotional reservoirs drained by a day on which something wondrous was to be found around every corner.

On day three, just to confirm that it had not all been a dream, Fulton completed his first Test fifty for seven years, before being caught behind off Anderson. Fulton’s innings was all the more admirable for being against type: his strike rate was 33, about half what the rate at which he scores in domestic cricket.

At the other end Rutherford was secure, then dominant. He was particularly strong through the covers, invariably a sign of class. There were three sixes, all off the pedestrian Panesar, and 22 fours. He reached 171 before chipping Anderson to midwicket.

Rutherford apart, the most relishable New Zealand batting came from McCullum, who always bats as if he is seeing it like Bradman, and at the moment actually is. Three fours from one over off Finn early on was a statement of intent. Early on day four there were three sixes within six balls off Broad and Anderson. This combination dismissed McCullum for 74 (from only 59 deliveries) when Anderson held on to under a skyer.

Buck Martin’s fine debut continued with 41 from 63 balls. McCullum declared when Martin was dismissed. The lead was 293 and the best part of two days remained.

For New Zealanders, the rest of the day was a matter of watching Hope move steadily towards the horizon, disappearing over it by the close, at which point England were 234 for one. Though there was little to cause the pulse to race, it was satisfying viewing, chiefly for the enjoyment of the technical mastery of Alistair Cook, out shortly before the close for 116. As much as any batsman I have seen, Cook has refined batting to a state of technical purity. Loose balls are scored off, good balls defended. Here, he seemed slow, but scored his runs at not much short of three an over. Watching Hutton must have been something like this. Besides, nobody has seen an England player score his 24th Test century before.

At the other end, Nick Compton reached his maiden Test century shortly before the close. His was a more dogged effort, but impressive enough for someone on a pair and with the press raising questions about the genuineness of his credentials as a Test batsman.

It was cold though. Not for nothing is Dunedin known as the Edinburgh of the south. My Waikato correspondent had joined us for the weekend, and, with little prospect of excitement at the University Oval, we decided to explore Dunedin on the fifth day. My correspondent was concerned that we would miss something remarkable, and that she would be left with a shell of a man as a result. I always bear in mind John Arlott’s cautionary tale of skipping a day of an up-country match in South Africa in 1948/9, only to find that he had missed Denis Compton scoring the fastest triple century of all time.

There was no need for such concerns here. Steve Finn, taking his night-watchman job far too seriously, ground out 56 over two sessions. I arrived at tea for the most interesting hour of the day, during which three wickets fell, but it was too late to be of any significance.

The University Oval is an impressive venue, just right for Test cricket. Though it is a comfortable walk from the city centre, it has a rural feel to it, tree-lined with green hills nearby. I was reminded a little of Mote Park, Maidstone, one of my favourite grounds. It was a pleasant place to watch a good Test match, even if the weather and the placidity of the pitch combined to produce anti-climax.






Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...