For all the recent talk about who might replace Joe Root as captain, there was always a much simpler solution at hand: Root keeps the job, rediscovers his batting form, and improves his captaincy skills. He’s done the first bit already. And that’s a huge step forward.
I really enjoyed watching Joe bat last night. It was like having the old Root back. The exaggerated trigger movements had gone – it looks like that horrible experiment we witnessed at Mount Maunganui is over – and he looked calm and balanced at the crease again.
Batting is a weird discipline sometimes. Having looked totally out of sync on this tour, all it took were a couple of pleasant drives, a few elegant swats through mid-wicket, and suddenly Root’s batting found its rhythm again. Hallelujah!
Let’s hope this is the start of happier times. I doubt Root will ever be a world class captain, but if he starts scoring runs again, and his team can start posting big first innings totals, then his win / loss ratio will certainly improve. And that’s the most important statistic of all.
Rory Burns also played a superb innings. He was all over the place the evening beforehand but looked totally assured on day 3. He rarely drove through the covers (a shot that looks great when it comes off but can get him into trouble), and instead he did a pretty reasonable impression of Alastair Cook: he simply clipped anything straight through the leg-side and pulled with aplomb whenever the bowlers dragged the ball short.
The 177 run partnership between Burns and the skipper got England right back into the game. What pleased me most was that they didn’t waste the absolutely perfect batting conditions – easily the best of the match so far. The pitch might have looked green on day one, but on day three it was brown, completely sedate, and offered very little for the seamers. The odd ball from Santner turned sharply but that was all the encouragement New Zealand got.
The benign nature of the surface definitely benefitted Root. It enabled him to enjoy what amounted to a glorified net at times. He was able to get his feet moving and line the bowlers up without alarm. Had the odd ball bounced alarmingly, or deviated dramatically off the seam, then it would’ve been a lot more difficult to find his confidence. Instead he was able to feel bat on ball in a totally comfortable environment and get a feel for batting again.
The pitch was so flat yesterday that run outs actually seemed to be the most likely source of wickets. Indeed, it was a clumsy run out which ultimately accounted for Burns – the ball after he’d reached his second test century. Zak Crawley was almost run out too as he tried to get off the mark.
However, although England’s position looks a lot more comfortable today we’re not quite out of the woods yet. The first session on day 4 will be pivotal. Either Root and Ollie Pope can pile on the runs and put us in position to win the game (or at least establish a handy lead), or New Zealand could take early wickets and put us under huge pressure.
Personally I feel that a draw is the most likely result from here. The pitch looks so flat that I can’t see either side taking 20 wickets. I can only recall approximately two balls misbehaving so deterioration shouldn’t be an issue – although we’ve seen surfaces crumble quickly in the past.
Obviously a draw won’t be enough for England to save this mini-series but at least we’ll save some face. Not too many teams win in New Zealand so at least a draw will restore some confidence to the dressing room.
What’s more, England’s batting is slowly beginning to look a bit stronger on paper. With Burns now looking established, Joe Denly improving at 3, Root back in the runs at 4, and Stokes capable of great things at 5, England suddenly have a handful of bankers. Well, ‘bankers’ is probably a little strong but you know what I mean.
The only real question mark for South Africa is who bats at 6. Will England keep faith with Pope and give the gloves back to Buttler at 7, or should they move Buttler to 6 and recall Bairstow or Foakes to bat at 7? At least we’ve got some options now. Meanwhile, Sibley and Crawley can compete for the second openers spot.
Tune in tomorrow for a dramatic volte-face when England get blown away in the first hour and everything looks utterly hopeless again.
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