Six things we learned from England’s epic Test series draw with New Zealand
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
Coming into this tour, England hadn’t won a Test (or a series) in New Zealand since 2008 – the first time Stuart Broad and James Anderson took the field in a Test together.
It looked for a long time as if a series victory was headed their way too, with the Black Caps invited to follow on after finishing their first innings 226 runs behind. But Kane Williamson led a rearguard fightback before a freeform thriller of a chase swung one way and the other, ending in a classic one-run win for New Zealand.
The defeat is the second of the Stokes-McCullum era, and left this as their first full series not to end in victory. From looking at a run of seven Tests in a row and clean-sweeping a Test winter for the first time since the 1800s, it’s a pre-Ashes speedbump, even if it’s unlikely to stop them from pressing their foot to the accelerator.
Here’s what we learned from this series.
Long live Test cricket
It’s a cliche, and it’s often trotted out by those who haven’t really been following when an otherwise dull game reaches a thrilling conclusion, that Test is best and there’s no other sport like it. The thing is, it’s true, and the Wellington Test was full of action even before the denouement, with the necessary dead spots only uplifting the rest. There was the Brook-Root recovery from 21-3, a top-notch fielding performance from England, a heroic rearguard from New Zealand, and some weirdness to bring the innings to a close. The chase was unimpeachable drama, packing another four or five twists into a target England would ordinarily have knocked off in 50 overs. Stokes and McCullum both beamed at the end, disappointed, they said, but happy to have played their part. Any frustrations were well-hidden. Maybe they are just here to entertain.
Ben Duckett can be an all-conditions option
It’s worth saying that there wasn’t much evidence that England ever viewed Duckett as a one-course horse. He made the squad for the final Test of last summer, and has been one of the dominant county batters for years now, culminating in a 2022 campaign that demanded he be picked. But there were those who suggested that, come the Ashes, when England may face a log-jam with Jonny Bairstow hopefully fit again, that it will be Duckett to make way.
That may yet transpire, but he more than played his part in this series, with his rapid half-century on the opening morning – the fourth Test in a row in which he has passed 80 – setting the tone for England’s pre-dusk assault. It’s not the same challenge as facing Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood with a Duke’s in hand at Edgbaston. But it was still a valuable knock for him and for England.
Harry Brook is the real deal
One player who will be in the XI for that first Ashes Test, barring injury, is Harry Brook, who demonstrated why he is perhaps the pre-eminent up-and-coming all-format batter in the world game right now. The 80-odd in the first Test was a mere prelude to a masterful performance in the second. Bazball can have a way of making any single effort seem less significant for the sheer number of them in totality, but 180 off 160 on a green seamer to rescue your side from 21-3 is legend-making stuff for any player, let alone one in his second full series.
The records have begun to tumble – the most runs after nine Test innings, an average briefly flitting above Bradman. They are unlikely to be the last.
We don’t need to worry about Joe Root
Joe Root is his own harshest critic – that much was clear after the first Test. A valuable fifty in the second innings set England on the path to victory, but two reverse reversals had him admonishing himself, questioning his role in this new style. The answer: make loads and loads of runs, as he did in the second Test. He is now one behind Ricky Ponting for Test daddy hundreds.
While his hundred came at a traditional strike rate of marginally above 50, he thankfully hasn’t shelved all sense of fun. There was a danger he could find himself the most well-behaved child in the class, his face forlornly pressed up against the window as the rest of the hooligans ransacked the sweet shop. But a slew of scoops, both reverse and ‘conventional’, showed he’s still planning to sneak a rhubarb and custard or two.
In the second innings, he played beautifully, but also ran out Brook and got out with victory in sight. This happens. “I felt like I owed that to the group,” he said at stumps on day two. Root, of course, doesn’t owe England anything. But maybe it’s best if no one tells him that.
Zak Crawley’s last rites, for now?
Where are we at now, with Zak Crawley? Maybe where we’ve always been, it’s just that everything else has shuffled around. He can still cash in on flat pitches and play the occasional cameo to make a difference in a tight game. You have to go back to Old Trafford, seven Tests ago, but in that game there was evidence of a player willing to tough it out rather than try and hit the shine off it.
But this isn’t really about Crawley – it’s about Bairstow, who has to play, and who else could make way. Ben Foakes might not be “as you say, Bazball” – his words – but he has made three half-centuries at crucial points under Stokes, played his part in the Lord’s win that kicked everything off, notched a century in that Old Trafford game in some of the toughest conditions this new side has faced to ensure one loss didn’t become two, and played his part with a nerveless cameo and some canny glovework. Duckett is also an option to make way, but has outperformed Crawley in the Tests they have played together. England might not want to leave out Crawley, but they also might want to not leave out anyone else more.
New Zealand aren’t going down quietly
The World Test Championship defence had gone – and this series didn’t count towards the claiming of the mace anyway. A 3-0 defeat in England and a fallible 2021/22 home summer had seen to that. But there was still plenty at stake here, with New Zealand fighting to extend a run of nearly six years without a home Test series defeat. There had been questions over Kane Williamson, battling with injuries and having crossed fifty just once since the World Test Championship final. He responded with a masterful hundred to set up the victory push. Neil Wagner too, who will turn 37 during the Sri Lanka series, showed why he’s one of the game’s great competitors with a lion-hearted barrage to turn the chase his side’s way. Most of all, there was a combined will, a rousing from the slumber, a flexing of that muscle-memory winning habit. New Zealand’s greatest era is beginning to fade, but there’s still plenty left to come.