Barring a collapse from New Zealand of the kind that England have so often managed to conjure up in these circumstances, this match will probably end in a draw, not least because the weather forecast isn’t overly promising. The hard facts will then be that England have lost a second successive series in New Zealand, albeit with only two Test in each instance the term “series” is barely justified.
The surface in Hamilton is slow to the point of being turgid, and England have demonstrated they can definitely bat on such pitches, so assuming this game to be a benchmark for the future would be unwise to the point of recklessness. But it is also the case that in both matches England have at least tried to play more like a Test team with the bat, and if that went rather badly wrong in the first match, it was at least an attempt. As Dr Johnson once said about a dog walking on his hind legs, it’s not that it is done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all. Perhaps this is a new approach, perhaps it is indicative that England are taking Test match batting more seriously and without the carefree approach that has seen them fall in a heap all too often. Or perhaps it’s just a very slow pitch with minimal movement that has allowed them to plod to big total. Whether the glass is half full or half empty probably depends on how many times someone has cursed at the television over recent years when England are playing away from home.
The upside is that Joe Root will unquestionably be better for a long innings and a big hundred. Sure, conditions for batting were benign, even if upping the tempo was difficult, but Root’s relatively poor run in recent times appeared less down to a technique that couldn’t cope with faster tracks than someone who appeared to have lost his patience to play long form cricket. To what degree this was down to his pursuit of T20 contracts is a matter for debate, but it certainly can’t have hurt to be reminded of what it felt like to play a long Test innings and make the kind of personal score almost forgotten by English batsmen.
In the same spirit, Ollie Pope’s 75 is also highly welcome, especially so given his additional role this match as emergency wicketkeeper. He is a player of promise, and at such a young age there is no reason to assume he won’t learn and develop, meaning his occasional extravagant shots can be forgiven at the present time.
The new coaching set up had insisted that England were going to bat properly in Tests and these two matches have at least shown a willingness to try. That doesn’t mean the first Test collapses aren’t indicative of pre-existing faults, but at such an early stage, perhaps a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt towards the intention is worthwhile.
What it doesn’t fix is England’s ongoing problems using the Kookaburra ball overseas, but then there are many reasons behind it that are unlikely to be fixed in a couple of Tests in New Zealand, even if there was a firm intention to fix them at all, which remains doubtful.
Slow, low pitches provide the least entertaining conditions for watching cricket, and if the setting is stunning, the cricket has not been. The game can ever surprise, but anything other than a draw after tonight will be a major one. Test series should never really be just about learning for the future, but neither should it just be a case of looking at outcome and ignoring at least the possibility of progress, however limited that might be.
The problem is invariably a complete lack of faith in the ECB to truly mean any of what is needed to provide a genuine pathway, but if the ECB’s duplicity in talking up Test cricket while acting at every stage to undermine it, at least they’re not alone in that. Cricket South Africa have provided an object lesson in Dennis Healey’s first law of holes – having removed the accreditation of cricket journalists for the crime of daring to criticise a highly dysfunctional governing body, they have subsequently tried to justify it, apologised for it while justifying it, mentioned that cricket journalists should only be talking about events on the field, and even got in the ECB favourite of thanking the stakeholders. They haven’t so much backtracked as crabbed sideways before flipping over and waving their legs in the air in a vain attempt to get back upright. It remains endlessly fascinating how cricket administration is so appallingly inept that it even fails to reach the limbo level low bar of sports administration generally.
With England due to arrive in South Africa in a fortnight, it offers up the enticing prospect of playing against a team whose governing body is even more crassly incompetent than their own, although in their favour they haven’t yet come up with an entirely new but unnecessary playing format.
Still, first things first – England do have a match to win this evening, and unlikely as it may be, the old favourite of a couple of quick wickets making it interesting will certainly apply.